Art: Art and Joyce

Proper art stills us, evoking an emotional state in which “the mind is arrested and raised above desiring and desiring” Improper art does the opposite, aiming to make the percipient act, think, or feel in a prescribed manner. Art is constantly being put to uses that are at odds with its essence. Cultural institutions, social pressures, laws, customs, fashions, and trends pull it in every direction: In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce outlines his theory of art. For the young James Joyce, true art is “static,” while false art, which he will here call artifice, is “kinetic”


Joyce describes two types of artifice: pornographic art and didactic art. In pornographic art, things are presented in a way that makes us want to possess or consume them. Didactic art is essentially pornography in the minor key, he writes. Both types are “kinetic” because they appeal to physiological urges rather than individual urges. “All forms of didacticism place art in the service of moral judgment,” he argues, “where all works are designed solely to convey a message or moral judgment” . 

Our intention is not to claim that artifice is invariably “wrong,” he writes, only that it falls short of the effect that art alone can achieve. Popular fiction genres often rest on a didactic foundation. Their purpose is to teach us how to act, and show us. How to feel by giving us something to judge,” he adds. “It fails because it subordinates the aesthetic to interests that are foreign to it,” he says, “and shows us what to think, and how to Act”