The Influence of Art for Art’s Sake on History

January 6, 2021

The early 19th century was marked by the two dominating, yet opposing tendencies - Romanticism and Neoclassicism. However, when it comes to the field of art theory, the phenomenon that encapsulated the zeitgeist of this era was Art for Art's sake, the English translation of l'art pour l'art, a French slogan that expresses the philosophic proposition that art should be deployed of any moral, political or utilitarian connotation.

The artworks produced under the influence of this belief were perceived as true art, art that is self-sufficient, complete in itself, morally neutral, or subversive.

Art for art's sake advocated for the primacy of aesthetic value and elements inherent to a work of art such as color, form, line, shape, space, and composition. This persuasion didn’t just become central to the British Aesthetic movement, but it also took over and made a huge impact on the later development of 20th-century art; it provoked different debates focused on the very notion of an artwork and the autonomy of art. For that reason, different stylistic preoccupations such as modernism and the avant-garde were tackled by Art for art's sake, still perpetuating the same patterns in contemporary art of today.

The Rebellious Nature of Art For Art’s Sake

The original phrase l'art pour l'art was coined by the French poet Théophile Gautier (1811–1872), who used it in the preface to his 1835 book, Mademoiselle de Maupin. However, he was not the first one to use this formulation, as it was already present in the works by distinguished figures such as the philosopher and the founder of Eclecticism Victor Cousin, Benjamin Constant, political activist and writer on political theory, and the famed American author, Edgar Allan Poe. The concept was embraced by many French, British and American writers, and artists, and by proponents of the Aesthetic Movement such as Walter Pater; one of the leading advocates of Art for Art’s sake was the American painter James McNeill Whistler

James Whistler - Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875. Oil on panel, 60.3 cm (23.7 in) x 46.4 cm (18.2 in). Collection Detroit Institute of Arts. Image Creative Commons

The Aesthetic Purists Throughout The Time

The 20th century was marked by the appearance of a new generation of modern artists willing to radicalize what the older Modernists, who grew into conservative academic painters, were unwilling to change. They explored virtuous representations aimed to express good moral values, desirable conduct, and noble sacrifice, all unacceptable to the radical modernists who considered them uncritical.

While the conservatives wished to maintain existing positions within the institutions, the younger modernists were critical of political and religious institutions since they restricted individual liberties. The old ideas inherited from the Enlightenment were no longer valid, and the change was only possible if all authority was questioned - especially in the terms of the middle class. Therefore, the avant-garde blossomed, exploring political and social issues that the younger artists felt the urge to address.

Art For Art’s Sake – A Matter of Privilege

Whistler himself believed he was confronting the tastes and ideas of the middle class, but this persuasion quickly turned to the neutralization of any particular content and led to formalism – the need to address issues solely reserved for the art-making process. That is how the quest of investigating the meaning and purpose of art in regards to society became easily ignored.

This 19th-century bohemian's credo was disputed by many, from John Ruskin to the figures who were inclined to the Marxist approach to art-making. Already in 1872, the writer George Sand claimed the Art For Art’s Sake is an empty phrase while insisting that the artists are obliged to communicate their deeds with a wider public. The distinguished German philosopher Walter Benjamin critically examined the slogan in his iconic 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Although widely debated, Art For Art’s Sake was mostly embraced by Abstract artists who were expressing themselves in a closed formalist framework that was separated from the real world. Such a paradigm was extended on the scale from the interwar abstraction through the post-war tendencies such as Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting to Minimalism and some later artistic styles.

Despite the fact various art movements active during the first half of the 20th century attempted to dissolve the formalist tendencies, the art system itself (governed by the academic art historians and critics, and the sprawling art market interested in profit) eventually absorbed all subversive inclinations and made the Art For Art’s Sake into a rather neutral activity.

Looking from the contemporary perspective, the Art for Art's Sake approach is retrograde and does nothing in establishing a dialog with a wider community as it addresses only the ones affiliated with arts. Although cherished by numerous artists, art historians, and the art market, the Art For Art’s Sake is very problematic in the terms of class.

Since the capitalist matrix not only tends to maintain the class discrepancy but rather to deepen it, this paradigm becomes even more questionable, not to mention the fact it means nothing in other cultural environments, being an exclusively Eurocentric creation.

Featured image: Marcel Duchamp - Fountain, 1917. Image by art@aditi via Flickr.