Lesson Seven:
Should Art Be For Art's Sake


The teacher presents five traditional European-American theories of art (formalism, instrumentalism, imitationalism, expressionism, and institutionalism). Students review Chicana/o and earlier protest art from an instrumental point of view. They then select one Chicana/o artwork to consider using each of the five theories. As students argue that one theory better accounts for the artwork than another, they reflect on, reassess, modify, or reaffirm their own beliefs about art.


  1. Students learn that European-America aestheticians (philosophers of art) do not all agree about the value and definition of art.

  2. Students learn that some cultures do not have a distinct word or definition for art.

  3. Students learn that some Chicana/o and Mexican artists have held instrumental beliefs about art.

  4. Students learn how to argue for a belief, not necessarily their own.

  5. Students learn how to listen to and respond to the arguments of others.

  6. Students learn that listening carefully to the beliefs of others offers opportunities to:

  • fully understand the beliefs of others,
  • discover weakness in the arguments of others,
  • reflect critically on their own, perhaps unquestioned, beliefs,
  • reaffirm and strengthen their own beliefs,
  • modify, clarify, or extend their own beliefs.


    Explain to students that in some European-American cultures there is not a distinct word or definition for art. What European-Americans might call art others might see as an integral, not separate, part of the culture, for example traditional Hopi katsina dolls, Navajo sand paintings, or Australian Aborigine ground paintings. Explain further that philosophers in European-American cultures have been trying to define art for over two thousand years and have developed several theories about the nature and value of art, including the following:

    Formalists believe that the best art affects its viewers because of the relationship among the visual elements in the artwork (lines, shapes, colors, values [lights and darks], textures, volume, and space). They believe that art is valuable in itself, that is, art for art's sake.

  • Instrumentalists believe that art should lead to some social good.
  • Expressionists believe that good art expresses the emotions of the maker and has an emotional impact on its viewers.
  • Imitationalists believe that good art imitates the appearance of things.
  • Institutionalists believe that the responses of people with authority in the artworld determines what is and is not good art. People of the artworld include artists, critics, curators, scholars, teachers, and others who are very involved in the art community. You might choose to follow up by asking the students questions such as the following:
  • Given what you've learned in the previous lessons in this unit, do you think Chicana/o artists have been given as much attention as artists by the mainstream artworks as artists of other cultural descent?
  • What affect has this had on the status of Chicana/o art and artists?
  • Is this situation changing?
  • Are there other groups (such as African-Americans and women) whom you think have been neglected by the mainstream artworld?
  • With younger students or students for whom English is a second language, you might want to make an overhead transparency ot make and post large placards with simple phrases to help identify the five theories:

    FORMALISM: Art is for its own sake. It's interesting to look at.
    INSTRUMENTALISM: Art has a function. It does something.
    EXPRESSIONISM: Art is about emotions. Feelings are what counts.
    IMITATIONALISM: Art should be realistic. It should look like something.
    INSTITUTIONALISM: Art is what art experts say it is.

    Review key artworks that exemplify the theme of Protest and Persuasion: Diego Rivera, José Guadalupe Posada, Alfredo Zalce, Luis Guerra, Judith Baca, Yolanda López, and Carlos Cortez. Ask students which of the five traditional European-American theories about art they think best explains these artworks. Share the following quotations by Chicano/o and Mexican artists.

    Luis Guerra spoke to a writer for the Austin-American Statesman (September 6, 1995)

    Guerra said that he believes that the artist's role should be similar to a shaman's, that artists should be using their work to heal the spirit of the world and of all its inhabitants.

    Judith Baca wrote:

    The purpose of any monument is to bring the past into the present to inspire the future.

    Diego Rivera revealed some of his beliefs about the value of art when he wrote:

    For the first time in the history of Art, Mexican mural painting made the masses the heroes of monumental art.

    Carlos Cortez literally quoted Ricardo Flores Magón's beliefs about art in his print:

    This stuff of "art for art's sake" is an absurdity and its defenders have always gotten on my nerves. I feel for art such reverent admiration and love for art that it causes me great distress to see it prostituted by individuals who, incapable of having others feel nor think what they think, hide their impotence behind the slogan of "art for art's sake."

    David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the great Mexican muralists, issued a manifesto in which he wrote:

    We repudiate so-called easel painting and every kind of art favored by ultra-intellectual circles, because it is aristocratic, and we praise monumental art in all its forms, because it is public property. We proclaim at this time of social change from a decrepit order to a new one, the creators of beauty must use their best efforts to produce ideological works for the people; art must no longer be the expression of individual satisfaction (which) it is today, but should aim to become a fighting educative art for all.

    Note that even though these beliefs might all, in some way, seem to be Instrumental, that they are all still quite different from each other.

    Next explain that there can be value in considering alternative beliefs to one's own. Doing so offers opportunities to: fully understand the beliefs of others; discover weakness in the arguments of others; reflect critically on their own, perhaps unquestioned, beliefs; reaffirm and strengthen their own beliefs; and modify, clarify, or extend their own beliefs. Review all 20 artworks on Chicana and Chicano Space. Ask students to vote on one they would like to consider from several points of view. Divide the class into five groups assigning one of the five European-American beliefs about art to each group. Each group should:

  • carefully review the assigned theory of art,
  • study the artwork looking for visual evidence that seems to relate to that theory,
  • click on the name of the artist (or read through printouts) looking for contextual evidence that seems to relate to that theory of art.
  • prepare an argument to be presented to the entire class that:
  • takes the position that the artwork can be explained by the assigned theory,
  • points to visual evidence to support that position,
  • provides contextual evidence to support that position.
  • As each group makes its argument before the class, explain that the task of the listeners is to:

  • hear and understand what the presenters are saying
  • ask clarifying questions if they do not understand
  • listen to the evidence and determine whether they find it convincing
  • be prepared to point out weaknesses in the argument
  • be prepared to suggest ways to strengthen the argument.
  • Conclude the lesson by asking students to set aside their assigned beliefs and discuss whether their own beliefs have been altered by the discussion, and if so how. Note whether or not the class has reached a general consensus. If not, remind students that reasonable people have talked about and disagreed about the nature and value of art for centuries.


    You may choose to ask students to each write a short essay in which they present their own beliefs about the nature and value of art. You might ask them to illustrate their points, when possible, with examples of artworks from Chicana and Chicano Space.


    During group presentations, note whether students are able to focus on the assigned theory of art, and to support their arguments with both visual and contextual evidence. During discussions (and in optional essays), note whether students seriously consider the views of others and perhaps modify or clarify their own beliefs as a result.

    Items for a Protest and Persuasion Portfolio might include:

  • notes on theories of art
  • essay on student's own beliefs about the nature and value of art
  • notes on how student's beliefs have been affected by considering other points of view.


    Reproductions of the following artworks: Diego Rivera, José Guadalupe Posada, Alfredo Zalce, Luis Guerra, Judith Baca, Yolanda López, and Carlos Cortez. (See Computer Reproductions.)

    Optional handout or overhead transparencies which presents the five traditional European-American theories art and the quotations from Chicana/o and Mexican artists or large placards with definitions.

    E. L. Katz, E. L. Lankford, & J. D. Plank, (1995). "Appendix A--Theories of Art," in Themes and Foundations of Art. Minneapolis: West Publications, pp. A1-A4.

    © 2001 Hispanic Research Center, Arizona State University. All Rights Reserved.