Art for the Sake of Art

Can you produce art for the sake of art? This is a tough question to deal with in regard to “In Dahomey”. The play’s original intention was asserted by its creators as a performance “written without any other object than to amuse.” “In Dahomey” is meant to be a lively, silly play put on by an all-black cast entering the minstrelsy scene. But, meaning and take-aways can be seen all throughout the play in the treatment of Me Sing, the back to Africa plot, depictions of the obstacles for African Americans in the north and south, and the theme of ownership (and the list continues!). Purpose, theme, and intentionality can be seen all throughout the plot of “In Dahomey”, but the importance of its art form is implicit. Being the first performance by an all-black cast meant the play could not just be for the sake of putting on a play. “In Dahomey” had immense importance, marking the entrance of black performers into the art scene.

How should we read “In Dahomey” if the intention of the creators is for entertainment, rather than reading into issues and arguments that the play presents? I believe that intentionality of the writer is important in the reading of plays, but the impact that their writings will have is unknown to them. It is the audience’s response that shapes the meaning of the play – isn’t that who and what performances are intended for?

The inability for “In Dahomey” to be any other wacky performance exhibits the burden of representation that was placed on the shoulders of this first all-black cast. This performance would reflect on the respectability of all black actors to follow, which is a great responsibility and pressure. Despite the controversial contents of its plot, “In Dahomey’s” importance cannot be forgotten, as it created the first step for black actors in the performance scene.

2 Replies to “Art for the Sake of Art”

  1. I think “art for art’s sake” can never be applied to a work done by a marginalized person. For example, the way you look at a painting in a museum differs whether or not you know if the artist is black or not. If they are black, you start to look for things that point to the black struggle, which you would never do without knowing that piece of information. While the actors may have claimed they wanted to do the play for entertainment’s sake, they were undoubtedly aware of the political implications of an all-black cast and used that attention to relay a message. Black art is always political and the cast of In Dahomey understood the burden of representation they carried. This was not art for art’s sake.

  2. Your point about the burden of representation is really interesting. And it complicates the idea of art for art’s sake. The stage has an inherent visibility which must color how you present your characters — its the fundamental nature of the art. Like Douglass in “Transatlantic,” the makers and performers of “In Dahomey” carry the history of their people, even as they attempt their own unique creative endeavors. At the same time, this means that even if the intention of the authors was entirely disparate from racial injustice or representation, their work will never not be read in that context. I wonder how Wilde would have felt about these complications to his principle?

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