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Art for Art's Sake

What Is Art? I don’t know what art is, but I know it when I see it. It’s easy to spot passion in any form. You can view two paintings from across a room of the exact subject painted with the same brushes and paints by two artists from exact backgrounds and training and one of the paintings will stand out. For me art is something that when I see it, my heart hits the floor and I become wildly envious and wish I could have made such a thing or possess such passion.

There is a book by Leo Tolstoy named What is Art. It was written by the Russian in 1897 exploring the need for art. Having rejected the use of beauty in art, Tolstoy defines art as something that communicates human emotion and political desires. Art has to have a meaning and a function, without function it cannot be art. But what about Art for Art's Sake?

No function—just something beautiful...

Art for Art's Sake is a real art movement called Aestheticism or the Aesthetic Movement also developed in the late 19th-century. The Aesthetics arts movement centered on art for the sake of art standing on its beauty alone, and it needed not serve any political, or other purposes—that’s where I have always been with art—ART FOR ART'S SAKE.

Art for Arts Sake considers what happens when we engage in viewing visual art, listening to music, reading poetry, experiencing a play, watching a fashion show, movie, sports or even exploring various aspects of nature simply because it’s beautiful. No function, no political message or governmental propaganda—just something beautiful to view, hear, touch, taste or read.

In 1862, renowned artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler painted 'Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl', an oil on canvas portrait of a woman dressed entirely in white against a backdrop of heavy white drapes—just for the ART of it.

This 573 Magazine Story is sponsored by the City of Cape Girardeau.

Well, it’s time to put the question to a professional. Meet Kelly Downes the director of the The Arts Council of Southeast Missouri in Cape Girardeau. Originally founded in 1961 by local metal-smith, Otto F. Dingeldein, the SEMO Arts Council is the oldest Arts Council in Missouri, even predating the Missouri Arts Council by a few years.

573: Tell us about yourself.

My name is Kelly Downes. I was born and raised on the North Shore of Chicago, and moved to Cape in 2015. I have a degree from Michigan State University in history and art. I am currently pursuing a degree from SEMO in Art Education. My passion for the visual, literary, and performing arts stems from being a student of history, and seeing how the arts are not only a transformative force for social change, but are also the bedrock of creating sustainable prosperity in communities. I am also an E-RYT 500 hour yoga instructor with multiple certifications in meditation and mindfulness. I am an avid reader and writer, and love spending time outside riding my bike and paddle boarding.

573: Tell us about your family.

I am blessed to have an incredible, supportive, loving, and fun-loving family. I am Irish Catholic. My dad, Thomas, was an Ad Executive/artist and my mother, Kathleen, was a nurse. Although they are no longer living, they still continue to inspire the person I am today. I have an older brother, Michael, who is a musician and tech genius, and my sister, Jamie, is the head of curriculum at St. David’s Preparatory on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I have a 12-year-old son, Bob, who is a bright and funny kid who loves to read and create art, and a nephew, Jack.

573: How long have you been with the Arts Council?

I have been with the Arts Council for four years. Two of those years, I was the Gallery Manager, and I have been the Director for 2 years.

Presently, we are committed to creating opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds to develop their current practices, to garner new skills, and to participate in meaningful, immersive arts experiences with friends and family.

573: So, what is art?

Art is the practice of recognizing possibility. It is the third solution in a world that speaks in duality. Art is the belief that you don’t have to stop playing as you age, and is the spiritual discipline that fuels curiosity and ingenuity. Art challenges the mind and opens the heart. For people who practice religion, art is what keeps us connected to the Creator, for in creativity we are born anew each day, each moment. For those who consider themselves humanists, art is the highest achievement of man, and what brings transcendence to the mundane. Art is a profoundly personal journey that connects each individual with the soul of the human experience.

573: Why did you move to Cape and how are you liking it here?

I moved, as many do, for love. And though the relationship ended, we have a child that we wanted to raise in a place where the pace of life still allows for a childhood. I have always been attracted to college towns, because they offer the culture of larger cities, with the values and interconnectedness of small towns. I love Cape because it is filled with some of the most genuinely considerate and dedicated people I have ever met in my life. While it seems like a “flyover” between St. Louis and Memphis, I have learned sacred lessons in this space, and have been given so much wisdom and so much from the psycho-geography of the setting. There is a lot of history here. There are spirits and ghosts. The natural world and wildlife still have a stronghold. And there is a DIY spirit here that makes things that wouldn’t be possible in a city. I was blessed to grow up in Chicago, and to have ceaseless access to a variety of cultural and artistic influences. But in Cape, anything you dream up, you can make happen…it is definitely a power center.

Painting by Robert Robbins

573: What is it that makes you love art?

I love art because it is liberating. There are no “bad thoughts” and “good thoughts”. There is no “wrong answer”. It is visual jazz. So much of the world and its influence tells you that you have to be a certain way…to look a certain way…to hold certain sets of ideals to be successful. Art throws all of that out the window. It has nothing to do with achieving an end. There’s nothing wrong with having a goal in mind, but life happens in the spaces in between. Like Claude DeBussy and Miles Davis say, “Music is the space between the notes…” I think the modern world has an abnormal fixation with progress, but it has caused us to jump ahead of ourselves, without really considering the ramifications. Art is about the process. It is about processing. It requires slowing down enough to let your soul catch up with your brain, and I think that is where we can access the higher-order thinking and executive functioning that leads to sustainable solutions and new ways of being in the world. Art, quite simply, has both shaped and saved my life.

573: Why is art so important to regular people?

Everything you see is art. The television shows you watch. The logos on the brands you consume. The song makes you want to dance or cry. But art holds something deeper. It is our attempt to connect with the greater mysteries of life. Art keeps us in touch with what modernism tries to kill…the human spirit. Art reminds us that we are more than cogs in a technocratic wheel. We are here to feel, to create, and to engage with our world and with our fellow human beings in ways that provide our lives with beauty and meaning. It is a mode of expression and communication that is actually still free. It is the last vestige of democracy. It is the rebel spirit that formed our republic. I don’t know what could be more important.

Painting by Joshua Newth

573: You talked about people and groups engaging in the arts - what about the individual? How can the council help the individual work through obstacles and fears to release passion into their art?

Great question. As a yogi and as an artist, I hear two common responses to those areas of practice: “I am not flexible.” and “I couldn’t draw a stick figure if I tried.” What this presupposes is that our condition is fixed. There is a very close relationship between creativity and consciousness, in that both require a growth mindset. There is no limit to what you are able to do, if you get out of your own way and take a leap outside your comfort zone. And I think the most dangerous condition of the human spirit is monotony…seeking the same stimulus and expecting to remain happy or curious or fulfilled.

To challenge oneself to face obstacles and fears with openness is a life-changing pursuit. You choose to see yourself, situations, and the people/environments you interact with as new, because you are aware of your own ever-changing nature. But, it is not for the faint of heart. You need to believe that you have something to say, or a reason for being here to take that first step. But once you do, you will find yourself among the bold, the adventurous, the spiritually-curious and mentally flexible everyday heroes who dare to defy the course carved out for them. A lyric from the song Victory Dance by my favorite band, My Morning Jacket, says:

“Should I hit the water or stay on dry land, even though I never swam?

Take machete into the brush, though at first there is no path

Taste the warpaint on my tongue as it's drippin' with my sweat

Place my gaze in the futures path, seein' things that ain't come yet…”

Art is a hero’s journey. And when you make the choice to follow your path, the universe conspires to support you. That is what the Arts Council is for…we are your neighborhood guideposts.

Painting by Maumita Chaudhury

I realized that there was much more truth to finding beauty in simplicity, than in focusing how the world does not suit my desires.

Painting by Jonathan Briley

573: What is aestheticism?

I have been attracted to aestheticism lately because I think that post-modernism has stripped everything of meaning. I think the problem that a lot of people have with “woke” culture is that it is performative. It is more about protestation and pretense than a commitment to actually awakening. The Nobel-Prize-winning Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, often writes on the Buddha’s message that the whole universe exists in a single flower. Every rain storm. Every pollinator. Each nourished the beauty of the flower. And when I started to realize the axiomatic nature of that teaching, I realized that there was much more truth to finding beauty in simplicity, than in focusing how the world does not suit my desires.

Painting by Barbi Myres

I can look at the struggle, yes. I can recognize the depth of the struggle. But what of the beauty of the conviction that compels the struggle forward…is that not more worthy of our time and consideration? This, to me, is aestheticism. I can complain about the climate, or I can commit myself to creating a beautiful garden. And eventually, incrementally, my recognition of beauty begins to change me from within, and changes the way I see the world, and other people. Protest looks to change the world outside, aestheticism changes the way we see. It is an internal process. I have studied freedom movements the world over, particularly in Africa and the diaspora. One of my favorite musicians, Bob Marley, recognized the value of protest in his art. But he knew that no one is inspired to save what is beyond repair. We must first be reminded of the beauty, the sacredness, and the holiness of existence for protest to be effective.

573 Magazine invites you all to join us in celebrating Art for Art's Sake. Go out in the world today and find joy in the simple beauties of art and life.


words and pics t. smugalaski

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