Art is the expression of human creative talent in audible or visual forms. It includes literature, music, painting, sculpture, etc. However, literature occupies the predominant part. And morality is the principles concerning right and wrong or good and bad behaviour in human society. However, art cannot be bound in any formula. In fact, it is being and becoming with the growth and development of civilization and culture.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde and a school of artists in England propagated the theory of art for art sake. They said that art has nothing to do with moral or social aspects of life, but that art exists for its own sake. The purpose of art is to achieve perfection in its typical expression of life and nature. Its mission is fulfilled when beauty is realised, as Keats said: “Beauty is Truth and Truth Beauty,”. The result was that poets devoted themselves to discover the world of beauty and create a perfect image rather than to express life in its reality. The painter sought to achieve delicacy and harmony in line and colour of his imagination. This is, as if, the image of Tagore’s Urbashi who stands for the eternal beauty in sheer perfection of form. She has no ties, no duties, no assignment in the scheme of life, excerpt to exist as the symbol of beauty. Such a work of art is not the means to an end, but the end in itself. It does not have any social purpose, and so it has no obligation to morality.
However, this theory shows only one side of art, not its full features. This is true so far as it suggests that an artist is not a teacher or a preacher. It is in this sense that Shelley declared that he hated moralistic or didactic poetry. But when in the late 19th century, writers like Walter Peter or Baudelaire exaggerated it and said that art should not have anything to do with the moral values, it became a matter of debate. Some stood in favour and some against it. A French poet said, “To admire art because it can uplift the individual is like admiring the rose because we extract medicine from it for eyes.”
On the other hand, Tolstoy and some others came forward who argued that we cannot ignore, even in the name of art, some moral values that constitute the essence of life. If we take the theory that art has not the least obligation to morality, it will promote a sort of aesthetic anarchism. The artist no longer reflects life in its wholeness, but in isolated, detached fragments. In such fragmentary glimpses, the sense of the totality of life is lost. Great writers like Shakespeare, Tagore and Tolstoy do not support this partial view of art. Life is the subject of art in its full form. If an artist loses sight of this moral view and contents himself with the perfecting of his technique only, he is no longer an artist but only a craftsman. The artist should be deeply involved in the ultimate purpose of what he creates. And here the moral life need not be a life limited by some codes of conduct. It is just the fundamental moral without which life cannot exist, and the artist has a prophetic role to play with it.
In fact, art is great, but life is greater. So the artist must forever strive to envisage, comprehend and express the totality of life or even the practice with the implication and significance of that total view.