The Paradox of Art for Art's Sake

Parlormuse performance at Montello, Wisconsin’s Cog County Faire several weekends ago, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to pay the nearby The House on the Rock Attraction a return visit. My first visit there, detailed in an earlier post, proved to be thoroughly inspiring and I found myself eager to learn more about the site’s mastermind, Alex Jordan, Jr. In particular, I wanted to know where he got his ideas and what drove him to undertake such a massive and multifaceted undertaking. Once again, my visit paid off generously, but not quite in the way that I had imagined it would. I spent a good amount of time reading the various quotes and anecdotes displayed within the Alex Jordan Jr. Center, but it was my purchase of Tom Kupsh’s excellent biography, Never Enough: The Creative Life of Alex Jordan, that really allowed me to peer into the world that was The House on the Rock during it’s development and construction. Jordan’s introverted nature stands in stark contrast to what he built. The House itself (i.e. the residence portion) was originally intended to be a private getaway, but as curiosity spread and more visitors began to arrive, Jordan reluctantly decided to open it to the public. Even so, it seems he did warm up to the idea of the site being an attraction, especially after the focus shifted to finding unique ways to display his extensive collections. In later years, Jordan could frequently be found sitting in a darkened corner of the Carousel Room observing the reactions of his visitors, or chatting in cognito with those waiting in line to hear what they thought of his creation. Although it is very clear that Jordan’s vision drove The House on the Rock’s development both before and after it’s public debut, I wonder if it would have ever been built had he not desired a personalized place to retreat from the world.  That brings us to the idea I would like to explore here: that of creating something simply to see it exist – art for art’s sake – without any external motivation or purpose. The idea of creating just to create is something with which I’ve always struggled. Certainly there has to be a purpose behind one’s efforts, doesn’t there? That purpose could be something as fundamental as wanting to enlighten or entertain one’s peers, or as a means to secure income, express or chronicle one’s ideas, thoughts, emotions, and so on. A diary has a purpose, after all, despite the fact that it may be written solely for one’s own personal benefit. If I knew when I started writing songs that no one other than myself would ever hear them, would I have spent the time, money, and energy on instruments, equipment, and training? In other words, do I find the process itself so enjoyable and fulfilling that it alone is enough? This last question is one that I have found myself pondering again and again, and try as I might, I have yet to find a way to convince myself that the process is, in fact, enough. Even without the prospect of a tangible reward, it’s hard to imagine creating without at least knowing that you have been able to communicate something of value to someone else. Even Alex Jordan sought the approval of The House on the Rock’s visitors. Clearly he had his own sense of vision and was relentlessly unapologetic in his pursuit of what he felt the place should be, but he still relied on feedback from his audience to tell him whether or not he had been successful in his efforts. In the end, he was still creating with a goal in mind, albeit on his own terms. I think that’s different than creating simply because you want to see your intangible imaginings made real, without any regard for who might experience the result or what they might take away from it. Even if we assume that the creator’s own enjoyment, enlightenment, or satisfaction is an inherent part of any creative act, isn’t the idea of expression built upon having someone – either directly or indirectly – on the receiving end? I think there is a separate but related concept involved here: that of allowing external concerns or factors, rather than internal ones, direct one’s creative intent or direction. Turning a blind eye to the consumerist aspects of one’s craft, as well as resisting the temptation to follow or imitate what has come before – the “hits” or formulas that seem to have worked so well in the past – can be a daunting task indeed. It requires a singular kind of bravery to strike out in one’s own direction, not knowing whether the terrain ahead will be hostile or hospitable. It’s not safe or comfortable, and there is no guarantee that one’s work will ever find an accepting audience. Even if it does, that audience may come long after the passing of the artist, as is the case with so many great works. Despite all of this, there are countless artists who have followed their hearts and imaginations and allowed their sense of vision to prevail over the desire for approval or a tangible return on their investments. Would we have many of the great inventions or creative works we now enjoy if their respective creators had decided to follow the well-paved roads instead of striking out across the undeveloped terrain of innovation and exploration? I think not. This is exactly what I believe Alex Jordan managed to do by following his creative intuition regardless of where it led, but I think he tempered this resolve with an awareness that there’s little point to putting on a show without an audience.]]>

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