"Art for art's sake" is the usual English rendition of a French slogan, "l'art pour l'art'," which was coined early in the nineteenth century by the French philosopher Victor Cousin and became a bohemian slogan during the nineteenth century. Although Théophile Gautier (1811 – 1872) did not use the actual words, the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) was the earliest manifesto of the idea that art was valuable as art, that artistic pursuits were their own justification, and that art did not need moral justification and was even allowed to be morally subversive.
The concept was adopted by a number of French, British and American writers and artists, and by proponents of the Aesthetic Movement such as Walter Pater. It was a rejection of the accustomed role of art, since the Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century, in the service of the state or official religion, and of Victorian-era moralism. It opened the way for artistic freedom of expression in the Impressionist movement and modern art. The slogan continued to be raised in defiance of those, including John Ruskin and the more recent Communist advocates of socialist realism who thought that the value of art lay in serving some moral or didactic purpose. The concept of “art for art’s sake” continues to be important in contemporary discussions of censorship, and of the nature and significance of art.
The concept that art needs no justification, that it need serve no purpose, and that the beauty of the fine arts is reason enough for pursuing them was adopted by many leading French authors and in England by Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Arthur Symons. The term appeared in the works of the French painter and art critic Benjamin-Constant. Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849), in his essay "The Poetic Principle," argued that:
We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake [ … ] and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force:—but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem's sake.
The American painter James McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903), who was averse to sentimentality in painting, commented that,
Art should be independent of all claptrap —should stand alone [ … ] and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like. (quoted in Smithsonian Magazine (Apr. 2006): 29)
The slogan “art for art’s sake” is associated in the history of English art and letters with the Oxford don Walter Pater and his followers in the Aesthetic Movement, which was self-consciously in rebellion against Victorian moralism. It first appeared in English in two works published simultaneously in 1868: Pater's review of William Morris's poetry in the Westminster Review and in William Blake by Algernon Charles Swinburne. A modified form of Pater's review appeared in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), one of the most influential texts of the Aesthetic Movement. In his essays, Pater declared that life had to be lived intensely, following an ideal of beauty.
The artists and writers of the Aesthetic movement asserted that there was no connection between art and morality, and tended to hold that the arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages. They did not accept John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold's utilitarian conception of art as something moral or useful. They believed that art need only be beautiful, and developed the cult of beauty. Life should copy art, and nature was considered crude and lacking in design when compared to art. The main characteristics of the movement were suggestion rather than statement, sensuality, extensive use of symbols, and synaesthetic effects (correspondence between words, colors and music).
The concept of "art for art's sake" played a major role in Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The concept of "art for art's sake" was a European social construct and was largely a product of the Industrial Revolution. In many cultures, the making of artistic images was a religious practice. In medieval Europe, art served primarily to ornament churches and palaces until the rise of a middle class created a demand for decorative art, illustrations, portraits, landscapes and paintings that documented what objects looked like. The Industrial Revolution brought about drastic changes which created serious social problems, such as the concentration of large numbers of people in urban slums, which caused people to question traditional values and reject romanticism.
While the academic painters of the nineteenth century felt an obligation to improve society by presenting images that reflected conservative moral values, examples of virtuous behavior, and Christian sentiments, modernists demanded freedom to choose their subject matter and style of painting. They were critical of political and religious institutions which they felt restricted individual liberty. Increasingly, artists sought freedom not only from the rules of academic art, but from the demands of the public, and claimed that art should not be produced for the sake of the public but for its own sake. The concept of “art for art’s sake” was also a challenge to conservative middle-class values, which still demanded that art have meaning or a purpose, such as to instruct, moralize or to delight the viewer. These progressive modernists adopted an antagonistic attitude towards society and came to be characterized as the avant-garde, those who stood at the forefront of a new age of art and culture.
The First World War signified a failure of tradition, and also demonstrated that scientific and technological progress would not automatically create a better world. A new cultural movement, Dadaism, began in Zürich, Switzerland, during World War I and reached its height from 1916 to 1920. Dadaists declared that modernist art had also failed, and rejected all prevailing artistic standards through anti-art cultural works. The Dadaist movement included public gatherings, demonstrations, and the publication of art and literary journals, and influenced later artistic styles and movements such as Surrealism, Pop Art and Fluxus.
The concept of “art for art’s sake” remains important in contemporary discussions about censorship and the nature and significance of art. Art has increasingly become a part of public life, in the form of advertising and of print and film media which is available to all members of society. Computer animation, graphic arts software and other new technologies allow the production of art which, though still original, is produced mechanically rather than manually by the artist. Performance art involves the participation and input of an audience and is beyond the control of an individual artist. These developments have triggered debates over the definition and requirements of “art,” and the role of the artist in society.
Patronage of the arts is increasingly in the hands of government or civic institutions which have an obligation to the society which they serve, and which are controlled by officials and politicians who are not necessarily able to appreciate art themselves, or who may be conservative. This raises questions of whether the government has the “right” to impose restrictions on artistic expression, or to enforce specific moral values. If artistic freedom requires economic independence, is it a privilege of the wealthy?
The Latin version of the slogan, "ars gratia artis," is used as a slogan by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and appears in the oval around the roaring head of Leo the Lion in their motion picture logo.
All links retrieved November 7, 2012.
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