Art as a place (or time) for the delight in what there is

Ann Banfield


G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica accords a central value to “the appreciation of what is beautiful in Art and Nature”, “worth having purely for their own sakes”. Bertrand Russell had worried in a letter to Moore that this ethic was “unduly conservative & anti-reforming”.  But Keynes made the central aim of any justifiable economic system to provide the leisure for these “goods” and not just for a privileged few, i.e., to bring about “that day [when] overwork, overcrowding, and underfeeding would have come to an end, and men, secure of the comforts and necessities of the body, could proceed to the nobler exercises of their faculties.” (The Economic Consequences of the Peace) This is the “delight” in what there is that Fry and Woolf take as the artist’s role to reveal and fix, but that they see in the power of the “ordinary mind” to enjoy, as Mrs Ramsay enjoys the “waves of pure delight [that] raced over the floor of her mind” and “the ecstasy [that] burst in her eyes” watching the sea turn from blue to yellow at dusk.  Far from signaling the acceptance of some political status quo, for Woolf and Fry the special value Moore assigns art along with what Woolf calls “life,” her code word for the enjoyment of momentary sense-data, stands as the goal of any social vision rather than the means to one.  This paper will examine the ways Woolf and Fry wrest a politics from Moore’s ethics, one in which the good represented by the enjoyment of beauty in art and life, —a primitive for Moore, with no need of justification— becomes a central goal of a social system, preventing “the overvaluation of the economic criterion” that Keynes thought “was destroying the quality of the popular ideal”.


Woolf, Virginia; Moore, George Edward; Keynes, John Maynard; Modernism; Art for Art's sake

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