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The Motivation of Art

Joy and Matthew Steem

9 Steem It is surely something worthy of merit that G.K. Chesterton’s quotable words have been equally employed by those from both right and left of spectrum. Rarely can an individual be used thusly. Perhaps this is because it is so easy to capitulate to the laziness of polarization. Anyway, in an angsty mood I was looking for easy ammunition from GKC. While thumbing through Chesterton titles, I stopped at Utopia of Usurers. Cute, right? To be honest, I was looking for easy ammunition against materialism. Indolence often reaches for the easy weapon, and I was guilty. Happily though, Chesterton in an essay titled “Art and Advertisement” served up something grander than a mere angsty quote: this time it was a timely inquiry into motive in the creation of art.

As Chesterton sees it, before the advent of mass advertising, a substantial motive for artists in their creation of art was to make a living.[1] No surprise there. Artists need to eat too, and we surely love sautéed stems of asparagus more than those of the thistle, despite the fact that the later are, indeed, quite edible (you can even make a hearty soup from them if needs be). However, many an artist was paid by a patron—oh, how sweet the sound of that word—who valued the art that s/he bought for its own sake. Of course not all, there are rich philistines as surely as there are poor ones, but art, so GK argues, was valued more for the thing it intrinsically was—a beautiful creation.

And herein, for Chesterton, is the dangerous difference: while the earlier motive for the creation of art was, among other things, for it to be appreciated by a patron, the motive in the advertiser is to employ human creativity to sell more stuff.

This bothers Chesterton greatly enough, for it is taking a creative power and employing it for an exclusive monetary purpose. Is there a better definition of this than pimping? And here I am reminded of how clever advertisers are in first inciting our emotions with such and such a picture or whatever, and then craftily weaving into that experience a self-serving purpose—invariably one that will line their own silken pockets. The ways advertisers try to incite us to buy stuff is legion. And they do it by using art—or, if you like, human creativity.

But what’s worse for Chesterton is that as the power of art is increasingly realised for its substantial ability to incite desire, advertisers will increasingly invest more and more funds into enlisting individuals adept in the arts. But, of course, whereas before art of value was largely made possible by patrons who knew that quality would cost money, now the advertiser is equally willing to spend copious amounts of funds for quality creativity, too. The difference being the motive: the first was for the sake of the art and the second is merely for the effective harvesting of more cash from the public. And to Chesterton, this is akin to prostituting out human creativity. And I might add, that for the less educated of the population, who might not have experienced truly “good” art, how are they going to distinguish between art and advertising? After all, both evoke an emotion. Now that the advertisers have truly embedded themselves in the very fabric of our culture, perhaps part of the answer is to, as Northrop Frye advised, help facilitate an “educated imagination.” And part of this education, and aiding in the ability to distinguish, would be as Iris Murdoch has so astutely said, to make known that “anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.”[2]

[1] If you are looking for a philosophical reason why an artist does not have to make any money – what a thought! – in her or his art, and still be justified, see Josef Pieper’s Happiness and Contemplation. It will assuredly warm your heart.

[2] This quote, along with some other very grand thoughts can be found in her essay “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts.