You are on page 1of 10; =dv1-18;toc.depth=1;;brand=default;query=%22art%20for%20art%27s%20sake%22#1 DICTIONARY OF THE HISTORY OF IDEAS.

ART FOR ART'S SAKE THE PHRASE art for art's sake expresses both a battle cry and a creed; it is an appeal to emotion as well as to mind. Time after time, when artists have felt themselves threatened from one direction or another, and have had to justify themselves and their activities, they have done this by insisting that art serves no ulterior purposes but is purely an end in itself. When asked what art is good for, in the sense of what utility it has, they have replied that art is not something to be used as a means to something else, but simply to be accepted and enjoyed on its own terms. The explicit and purposive assertion of art for art's sake is a strictly modern phenomenon. The phrase itself begins to appear only in the early years of the nineteenth century, and it is some time after that before a recognizable meaning and intention can be said to emerge. This is quite as would be expected. For before there can be any need and reason to assert that artistic activity is self-sufficient and works of art are ends in themselves, a certain intellectual and cultural climate must occur. The essential catalyzing agent in this process can be identified in a few words: it consists in the tendency of the human career toward complexity, specialization, and fragmentation. So long as the structure of lifeindividual and social, economic and functional, theoretical and practicalis relatively compact and cohesive, there is little occasion for the emergence of private groups with a strong sense of their own interests and tasks as opposed to those of other groups. Men had obviously all along filled different roles requiring different skills and directed toward different purposes; and their respective duties, responsibilities, and powers had varied across a wide spectrum. But both the actual structure of society and the

attitude of men towards society, were largely holistic and organismic. Consequently, the pursuits that we now distinguish quite sharply, such as religion, morality, politics, law, science, technology, art, etc., were not formerly regarded or practiced in such a separatist manner. The same individuals were often engaged in several of these activities, which were viewed as aspects of a single undertaking rather than as distinct endeavors. Though men had certainly practiced art, they had not, with certain exceptions, been highly conscious of themselves as artists. Beginning with the Renaissance, this cohesive cultural and intellectual unity starts to crumble, and the end of the eighteenth century sees it thoroughly disintegrated. By then, divergent and divisive tendencies are at work throughout the social fabric, finding expression in what we call the religious, political, scientific, and industrial revolutions. Men's newly awakened interests contrast with their old habits and commitments. Inspired by an intense dedication to specific values and purposes, they are drawn together into various groups, each with a strong sense of its own identity and mission. As the result of this broad social and cultural movement, men begin to think of themselves as scientists, ministers, politicians, financiers, or artists; and they assert that as such they have a function of particular importance and so require particular privileges. The more precise intellectual matrix of the doctrine of art for art's sake can most plausibly be located in the philosophical system of Immanuel Kant, though it must at once be added that Kant certainly did not intend this outcome and would have repudiated it vehemently. But he still made it possible and even inevitable. Through the three Critiques, of Pure Reason, Practical Reason, and Judgment, Kant established a triadic division of man's mental capacities and functions. To paraphrase somewhat loosely Kant's formidable terminology, man is endowed with understanding or cognition, with a sense of duty or conscience, and with aesthetic taste or sensibility. Kant's interest was focused on the first two of these; he was anxious to place science and morality on a firm foundation, and so to avoid the drift toward relativism and skepticism

that had reached a climax in the work of Hume. The third Critique, that of Judgment, plays a more ancillary role, with its significance deriving from architectonic considerations rather than from the intrinsic interest of its subject matter. Even if this was true of Kant, and the question is highly debatable, it was certainly not true of his immediate converts and followers in German Idealism. For what Kant had done was establish the aesthetic as an autonomous domain, coordinate with man's cognitive and moral faculties and playing a distinct role of its own in the life of the mind. The Idealists were quick to see the possibilities that this schema offered them. Revolting more or less consciously against Rationalist tradition, with its emphasis upon balance and proportion, its insistence upon strict adherence to rules of composition, its exaltation of reason and science, and its morality of detachment and calculation, the Romantics were anxious to find a way to escape from the confinement of this creed and to justify those other aspects of human nature and existence that rationalists neglected or denigrated. Friedrich Schiller was the first to exploit Kant's doctrine of the aesthetic for this purpose. But he was followed in rapid succession by Friedrich Schelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer; and then, at only a slight remove, by the wave of Romanticism that swept over France and England as well as Germany, propelled on


the thought of men of such diverse temperaments and talents as Herder and Goethe, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, the brothers Schlegel, and Baudelaire, to mention but a random few. Despite its varied manifestations, this movement had a form and unity deriving from two dominant themes. First, and more generally, there was the common conviction that art played a serious and significant role in life, that it exercised a human faculty that nothing else could touch, and that it made a unique contribution to man's understanding of the world. Before this, the value of works of art had been primarily regarded as either utilitarian or ornamental; art was thought of as a subsidiary and derivative phenomenon. Now the aesthetic life was raised to a position of high dignity and importance. Second, and more specifically, art was now defined by reference to a particular human faculty and need that brought it into being. Interpretations of this aesthetic source varied, but it was always localized in the sensuous, emotional, and perceptual aspect of man's nature. It was held that artists grasped reality in an immediate and intuitive manner, embodied it in a material form, and so made it available to direct apprehension. In short, art yields concrete insight into the reality that reason can present only in the guise of abstract concepts. The stage was thus set for the appearance of the idea of art for art's sake . But its actual entrance still required two further developments. Artists had to acquire a strong sense of their identity as artists, of the intrinsic significance of the art they created, and of their need to create freely without interference and harassment. And other established social groups and institutions had to become afraid of the threat that such free artistic expression might pose to their conventional values, beliefs, and practices. Once these conditions existed, censorship, though already widely imposed on literature since the Renaissance, was now directed against many forms of art, both by the church and the state, in an effort to control and direct art, or keep it subservient to special uses and standards. Artists replied by asserting that art was an end in itself, to be created and judged in terms of purely aesthetic criteria.

The idea of art for art's sake is thus to be seen as partly a declaration of artistic independence and partly an expression of the alienation of the artist from society. It is at once a claim and a complaint. Insofar as artists are men, their rejection by society causes them to suffer psychically as well as economically; insofar as they are artists, they glory in it as a proof of their uniqueness. So the alienation that the artist expresses when he dedicates himself to art for art's sake is a compound of protest and pride. In this guise, the idea serves chiefly to sustain the artist's ego. As a declaration of artistic independence, the idea plays a far more significant and constructive role. For here it becomes a device by which artists justify themselves in the paths they follow and protect their work against attack from an outraged society. So the history of art for art's sake is essentially a history of the various attempts that are made to subvert art, as the artists envisage it, by subordinating art to other purposes and demands; the idea takes shape gradually and erratically, as the threat comes now from one quarter now from another. Although there is very little continuity and development to be found in this history, it can be seen as containing four major chapters, each consisting of a counterattack against a different enemy. These enemies can be conveniently labeled as conventional morality and religion, utility and didacticism, science, and subject matter. Apparently the first to use the phrase L'art pour l'art was Benjamin Constant in an entry in his Journal intime for February 11, 1804. It is introduced quite casually to refer to the aesthetic doctrines of Kant and Schelling, which Constant finds very ingenious. The idea then occurs with increasing frequency in the writings of the Romantics and of all those who, like the Romantics, felt the special calling of the artist and the alienation and lack of understanding under which artists suffered: this list would include particularly Baudelaire, Gautier, Hugo, Flaubert, and Mallarm in France; Whistler, Pater, and Oscar Wilde in England. In the course of time, the phrase accretes around itself a large but miscellaneous body of passions, convictions, commitments, complaints, and especially antipathies.

In accord with the pattern suggested above, these artistic attitudes and purposes can be seen as clustered around four poles. Artists inveigh against conventional bourgeois morality, with its prudery and hypocrisy, and against all of the measures through which the government, the church, and the press seek to impose this morality and suppress any deviations from it. They repudiate with equal vehemence and scorn the spirit of utility, which asks of everything what practical purpose it serves and is incapable of accepting and enjoying anything as simply good in itself. In a similar vein, they reject the claims of didacticism, refusing to acknowledge that their art should proclaim any moral truths or lessons. Artists also express an intense anxiety about the inroads of science and the spread of the scientific mentality, with its emphasis on material things and mechanical processes, and its worship of brute facts. Finally, artists reproach the sentimentality of the public, which looks not at their works of art but merely at the objects, scenes, and events that these depict; that is, they resent the slavery of subject matter. The tone and content of these complaints can best


be conveyed by a few quotations from the artists themselves. James A. McNeill Whistler, the painter, made a habit of delivering lectures, granting interviews, and writing letters to newspapers, all of

which had the dual purpose of ridiculing popular opinions and tastes concerning art and preaching the doctrine of art for art's sake . These have since been collected in a volume under the title of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890), and they constitute a rich mine of doctrine and diatribe. Whistler's statement of the case is direct and pungent:
People have acquired the habit of looking, as who should say, not at a picture, but through it, at some human fact, that shall, or shall not, from a social point of view, better their mental or moral state.... Alas! Ladies and gentlemen, Art has been maligned. She has nought in common with such practices.... Purposing in no way to better others, ... having no desire to teach.... Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music!... To say to the painter, that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano

(pp. 138, 136, 142-43). Thophile Gautier urges a similar doctrine, insisting particularly upon the necessity for an absolute divorce between man's artistic and practical pursuits. His argument is brief and pointed: Only those things that are altogether useless can be truly beautiful; anything that is useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and the needs of man are base and disgusting, as his nature is weak and poor (Gautier [1834], p. 22). Walter Pater puts the case in a more philosophical way, seeking not only to extol art but also to explain and justify its preeminent importance. His argument rests upon the contrast between the richness and fleetingness of immediate experience and the bare abstract concepts to which analytical thought seeks to reduce it. And he insists that the entire meaning and value of life reside in the wealth and intensity of experiences. The highest wisdom lies in explaining things, much less in using them, but simply in sensing and feeling them. He concludes in these terms: Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality

of your moments as they pass, and simply for these moments' sake (Pater [1873], pp. 238-39). In the twentieth century the idea of art for art's sake undergoes a rather radical transformation, generating a more serious and systematic doctrine, and exerting a more positive influence upon artistic creation. It now appears in new interpretations of such concepts as pure poetry, significant form, plastic form. The significance of this movement lies in the insistence that the work of art is an autonomous and self-contained entity; its meaning and value are exhaustively contained in its material and formal being. Works of art do not need to borrow significance from biographical, psychological, historical, or sociological sources; their significance lies in the formal structures that they realize in a material medium. These ideas had already found eloquent expression as early as 1854 in Eduard Hanslick's book, The Beautiful in Music; they were forcefully restated for the context of literature by A. C. Bradley in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909); they received their most incisive advocacy in Clive Bell's Art (1919) and Roger Fry's Vision and Design (1920). Since then, this doctrine has become a commonplace of artistic creation and criticism, and has served as the theoretical source and justification of such importantand divergentcontemporary developments as those of abstract, nonobjective, nonrepresentational, and constructivist art, as well as Dada, Surrealism, and Cubism. So the idea of art for art's sake has now ceased to be an instrument of protest and defense, and has become one of the central tenets of official aesthetic dogma. It is not he who does or praises art for art's sake who must justify himself, but rather he who would assign to art any values, or judge art by any standards, other than those that are intrinsic to it. Yet the adherents of art for art's sake seem to be as uneasy in their new security as they were in their former alienation. At the same time that they proclaim the autonomy of the artist and his art, their freedom from any extrinsic purpose or obligation, they also insist that the artist is a seer and a prophet, and that through his art he makes available both a truth and a mode of existence that are essential to human well-being. The most star-

tling illustration of this ambivalence occurs in Clive Bell's Art, where, within the brief span of forty pages, Bell first urges a rigid doctrine of pure art and then proclaims that art makes us aware of the God in everything, of the universal in the particular, of the all-pervading rhythm (Bell [1914], p. 54). But similar conflicts of intention crop up on virtually every occasion when contemporary artists write about their art. The truth of the matter seems to be that the idea of art for art's sake is one of that numerous class of important half-truths whose validity and vitality are dependent upon the effective presence of their complementary half-truths. This idea is necessary to preserve the independence of the artist and the integrity of the artistic enterprise. But its other half, which is the idea of art for life's sake, is equally necessary to guarantee the integration of the artist into his society and hence the meaningfulness of his art.


Albert C. Barnes, The Art in Painting, 2nd ed. (New York, 1928). Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present (New York, 1966). Clive Bell, Art (London, 1914). A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry (Oxford, 1909). Albert Cassagne, La Thorie de l'art pour l'art en France (Paris, 1906). Rose Egan, The Genesis of the Theory of Art for Art's Sake (Northampton, 1921; 1924). Roger Fry, Vision and Design (London, 1920). Thophile Gautier, Mademoiselle de Maupin (Paris, 1834). Edmund Gurney, The Power of Sound (London, 1880). Eduard

Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music (London, 1891). Hilaire Hiler, Why Abstract? (New York, 1945). Jos Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art (Princeton, 1948). Walter Pater, The Renaissance (Oxford, 1873). Louise Rosenblatt, L'Ide de l'art pour l'art dans la littrature anglaise pendant la priode victorienne (Paris, 1931). Irving Singer, The Aesthetics of ' Art for Art's Sake ,' JAAC, 12, 3 (1954), 343-59. James A. McNeill Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (London, 1890). John Wilcox, The Beginnings of L'art pour l'art, JAAC, 11 (1953), 860-77. IREDELL JENKINS Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. Ed Philip P Weiner, Charles Scribners Sons, 1968.;brand=de fault;;query=Dictionary%20of%20the%20History%20of%20Ideas