That the function of the arts is to teach was an idea almost universally held in Europe before the 17th century. In India, their object was consideredto be the evocation of rasa or an aesthetic emotion, —a thrilling sensation roused by the appeal of beauty. The French critics of the 17th century asserted that pleasure is the end that art strives to achieve, but this is different from the Indian theory which denotes something more specialized than what is understood by pleasure. It was in the 19th century that European poets and critics came to assert the concept of the‘usefulness’ of Oil Paintings art,—that art exists for its own sake, and its justification must be sought in something apart from its effects on the human mind. If it does produce pleasure, it is only to be looked upon as a by-product,—useful certainly, but not essential in itself.
Thus art may be taken to mean a perfect mode of expressing the perfect. Recalling the Platonic Doctrine of Archetypal Beauty the modern exponents of the doctrine of art for art’s sake assume, that there exists in the mind of the artist what Keats called “the Mighty Abstract Idea of Beauty”, and his function is to embody this idea in a satisfactory form. The perfection of a work of art, therefore, depends on the extent to which the formal expression has been able to approximate to the Abstract Art. The artist ‘intuits’ or experiences this idea unconsciously and immediately, and this intuition is always a total image. The clearer this image is in the mind of the artist, the more satisfactory is its transmission in the work of art. Hence, the artist must devote himself to chisel, polish and refine his work until perfect approximation of form to idea is achieved. This approximation towards ‘perfection’ is to be achieved for no ulterior object, but for itself only.
The consequence of this theory was to attach greater importance to the form than to the idea; to the sensual rather than to the moral and intellectual apprehension of the idea. That is why Pater and his disciples like Oscar Wilde placed such emphasis on ‘style’ in art. To these aesthetics, style is everything, it being the finest way of expressing the finest image. Undoubtedly the style is the image of the mind, and the exponents of the theory did a world of good in drawing attention to the needs for attending to style, and stemming that anarchy in expression which disfigured much of the best in romantic art.
The quality of expression in any Landscape art, it was further emphasized, depended as much on that of the artist’s perception—his vision of the object or experience he seeks to embody—as on his mastery of the material which he must be able to bend to his own special use. That is why the Pre-Raphaelites paid so much attention to details, why the aesthetics poets were to very fastidious in their choice of words. This fastidiousness became morbid in painters like Whistler and Cezanne. But undoubtedly it has enriched the formal aspects of art with greater precision, pointedness, and harmony of design and execution. Art is great, but life is greater than art, and so the artist must forever strive to envisage, comprehend and express the totality of life in order to rouse the human consciousness to a proper attitude to it.