In this essay Forster explores the importance of art and its status relative to science, society and politics, essentially he is exploring aesthetics, and does so in a style that is erudite but at times witty, self-deprecating and wry. The original date of publication 1951, in a volume entitled Two Cheers for Democracy is importnat and this paper will explore the importance of that context later. The essay reproduces the words of a speech Forster delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts on November 22nd 1949, as some references in the text make clear. Forster’s essay is a passionate but logical argument aboiut eh primacy of art, written at a time of enormous leaps in scientific knowledge and at a historical moment when human civilization itself seemed threatened.
Forster begins by stating bluntly “I believe in art for art’s sake” (207). He then goes on to the stereotypical image of the artist towards the end of the nineteenth century – “sixty years ago,” flamboyantly dressed “in an embroidered dressing gown” or “a blue velvet suit or a kimono” (207). This witty denigration on Forster’s part is deliberate and is meant to distance his argument from the public image of the writer a solitary, slightly eccentric and effete aesthete, concerned only with experience. He may even be referring to Oscar Wilde who did dress outlandishly and who also advocated “art for art’s sake.” Forster, however, goes on to clarify that a belief in “art for art’s sake” does not necessarily imply that you believe that art is the only thing that matters in human society. He states directly: “Art for art’s sake does not mens that only art matters” (208). He concedes that we live “in a complex world, full of conflicting claims.” In other words, Forster accepts that the artist lives in a world where society needs plumbers, train drivers and scientists; the artist cannot be cocooned from the social realities of the time he/she lives in.
The next stage of his essay seeks to define what it is about art that makes it so important human society and in human culture. He uses examples form drama (Macbeth) and art (Seurat’s painting La Grande Jatte) to argue that what makes art unique in the field of human accomplishments is that a work of art “is a self-contained entity, with a life of its own imposed upon it by its creator. It has internal order” (208). And it is this “order” imposed y a human creator that makes art unique, Forster argues, and what gives human beings aesthetic pleasure.
Forster then proceeds to discuss what he means by “order” and concludes that in the broad sweep of human history periods and places where “order” existed were few and far between, Forster demonstrates his grasp of human cultural history by deliberately taking an all-encompassing view of human development, referring to ancient Athens, Renaissance Italy, eighteenth century France – arguing that such moments are especially propitious for the artists. However, he moves on to criticize the rate of scientific change and argues that it is not conducive to producing the conditions in which great art is produced; nor does it create order. On the contrary it produces disorder and confusion, such is the rate of change. Scientist might counter that the Periodic Table of the Elements or Newton’s Laws of Planetary Motion are examples of order in the area of scientific knowledge. However, these examples do not have “internal order” which Forster has already identified as the characteristic of works of art. Newton’s explication of our solar system and the precise maps of astronomers come from without: human beings have merely observed them and recorded what they have discovered – they are not responsible for creating that order, but merely seeing it.
Controversially, Forster observes that all that is left of ancient Greece is not the powerful commercial empire that dominated the Mediterranean before the Romans, but the glories of Greek tragedy (he mentions Antigone specifically); James I of England was a poor king, but Macbeth, written while he was king and partly as a tribute to him, survives. Forster is encouraging his readers to step back from our obsession with the day-to-day machinations of politics and statecraft to see and understand that, ultimately, while empires rise and fall, it is art that gives value, lasting value to human civilization. He also asserts, in the face f what we might call the democratization of art, that the creative artist should attempt to be “matey” or popular, for to do so risks those qualities which make him or her an artist. An obsession with popularity will prevent the artist from “the making of something out of words or sounds or paint or clay or marble or steel or film which has internal harmony and presents order to a permanently disarranged planet” (210). Society disintegrating is envisaged towards the end of the essay and Forster seemingly makes the grand claim that if it does, then the only thing that will be worth preserving for posterity are works of art. To recall his earlier point – society needs plumbers, but succeeding generations will not remember us for the advanced design of our shower systems. Thus, Forster concludes, art and the artist make a unique and uniquely valuable contribution to human civilization which is far more important ultimately than the contributions made by science – no matter how much those scientific advances improve the quality of our daily lives.
My introduction stared that the context of when this essay was published was vital and it is with this that I want to end. Forster is writing at the start of the nuclear age and at the start of the Cold war. His remarks on the relative lack of importance of politics are meant to be a provocative reminder of what really matters, and his vision of a society destroyed is a response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and also explains his passion for art because what else will survive?
Forster, E. M. Selected Essays. 1980. London: Penguin. Print