Just as a cats brain appears to be tickled by certain types of movement, so the brains of many humans appears to be tickled by beauty - giving us a sense of pleasure that I tend to think once served some primordial purpose. Perhaps it still does.
I've also noticed that not everyone appears to share this sensation; humans divide themselves in many ways and one quite striking division is between those who think we ought to survive at any cost, however cramped and crowded, ugly and distasteful the world becomes; and those who prioritize the quality of human life and the life of all other flora and fauna. For the former, beauty appears to me to be a lesser consideration. For the latter, it is of paramount importance.
So if you have beauty in art, for me, you need no other excuse. If you 'deprioritize' beauty and dismiss it as 'sentimentality' you do need some other excuse.
Art for art's sake is an understandable reaction against overbearing ideologues and political activists of every stripe, but beyond that I suspect art cannot separate itself off completely from life. However, the idea of it being useful for any purposes misses the real point of art, which is precisely that it is not useful. Pure science is not in itself useful either, but it might become useful when it influences human practical activities. I think the same applies to art (Dance, Music, Painting, Literature, Opera, Theatre, etc.), although perhaps in a different way. It can help shape our responses to things. Think for example of Hamlet, after Horatio has said, "So Rosencrantz and Guildenstein go to't." and he replies, "Why man, they did make love to this employment. / They are not near my conscience. Their defeat / doth by their own insinuation grow. / 'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes / between the pass and fell incensed points / of mighty opposites." Such lines have a kind of application in practical life, even though they are contained within a play and their validity depends on how well they fit into the play's fictional context. There are two aspects here. One is purely aesthetic, while the other one is connected to the world outside the play as well. And, ultimately, the one can't be divorced from the other.
There are several examples of how things we humans do with the most beautiful of motives can so often end in an ugly mess when we sacrifice beauty for practicality or other excuses (waking up everyday to go to work for example). Oscar Wilde could have chosen the practical route, hidden, lied, recanted, done and said anything to save his own skin but he didn't. He wasn't prepared to sacrifice beauty and that's probably why he is remembered and revered. I'm mainly seeking to illustrate the differences between the pleasurable beauty of the aestheticism, derived, as it was, directly from nature (all art - even an accurate portrait - is strictly speaking an "abstract painting", since it is abstracted from nature) and other kinds of beauty we're more familiar with since the 20th century.
For example, that rational, pared down, minimal "machine for living", function before form, detail-less beauty for detail-less minds, empty white box and concrete cube type of beauty. Or the "ugly" beauty of the chaotic - detritus as art, melted carnage, etc. Or "banal" beauty - the mind-numbingly mundane in an art gallery, potted cacti, Tupperware, a recreated 50's living room, that kind of thing.
For me, the one 'abstracted' from nature, is a purer kind of pleasure. The one abstracted from excuses of our own invention not only lacks nobility but also smacks of self-justification.
For those who questioned the (im)morality of his "ethics" Nietzsche would presumably echo Whistler. Nietzsche's master was truth; beyond good and evil; telling us what morality was/is/could be, not what we wished it was/is/could be.
Telling us that God was absent; that we're on our own in an indifferent universe; that life in general was a momentary minuscule fluke of nature. That we created our world and died failing to sustain it; what a futile act of doomed defiance! But laughing and dancing all the while as he pointed to the paradoxical contradictions in all he said, in all our efforts to find wisdom, to learn, to gain knowledge, to live a good life.
Part of our modern (in a general sense) understanding of "art," allows for considerable social status for the person who makes it, if the maker, or what is made, can persuade someone of its value. That value, of course, may be very transient. The status that society allows an artist is also historically and culturally variable. The ideal of creative freedom is far from universal, but it is true that most societies acknowledge that "artists," in whatever medium, can access a peculiar power.
However times and places define it, "art" as we now rather vaguely understand it, is culture created and presented in a visible and audible form. It can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, from its creation onwards, and it's neither good because it was made/collected by someone with the noblest motive, nor bad because it was made to advertise a corporate product.
Perhaps a better and shorter way of saying this, is that certain things are not quantifiable, because you are dealing with the qualities of something as it impacts on us. There are certain things which happen below the level of language - and understanding - even when words are in question. In this sense, Shakespeare is no different from an abstract dance artist like Fátima Veloso or a composer like Bach, as anyone who has tried to understand what Hamlet's about might tell you.
I think we remember all kinds of art & artists - depending on our personal likes & dislikes. And not even that - every artist of merit should be noted for "his thing" as 'twer - whether you take to the work or not - the artist at least expressed themselves creatively. And isn't that what art is for? For people to express themselves - if the public like what they're doing that's a bonus - if not then "sei's drum".
NB: This show will be presented on the 12th of July by my friend Fátima Veloso, LX Dance's director. The "Nossa Senhora do Amparo" sacred music choir to which I belong will also make an appearance. Yours truly as male tenor will also sing his heart out...