Art for Art's Sake Movement and Chronology

ART FOR ART'S SAKE SYNOPSIS

The phrase 'art for art's sake' condenses the notion that art has its own value and should be judged apart from any themes which it might touch on, such as morality, religion, history, or politics. It teaches that judgements of aesthetic value should not be confused with those proper to other spheres of life. The idea has ancient roots, but the phrase first emerged as a rallying cry in 19th century France, and subsequently became central to the British Aesthetic movement. Although the phrase has been little used since, its legacy has been at the heart of 20th century ideas about the autonomy of art, and thus crucial to such different bodies of thought as those of formalism, modernism, and the avant-garde. Today, deployed more loosely and casually, it is sometimes put to very different ends, to defend the right of free expression, or to appeal for art to uphold tradition and avoid causing offense.

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DETAILED VIEW

Romanticism and the 19th Century

The phrase 'art for art's sake', or l'art pour l'art, first surfaced in French literary circles in the early 19th century. In part it was a reflex of the Romantic movement's desire to detach art from the period's increasing stress on rationalism. These forces, it was believed, threatened to make art subject to demands for its utility - for usefulness of one kind or another. The phrase was taken up by writer Theophile Gautier and subsequently attracted the support of figures such as Gustave Flaubert, Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire. When the phrase reached Britain it became popular in the Aesthetic Movement, which encompassed painters such as James McNeill Whistler and Lord Leighton, and writers such as Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.

Modernism and the 20th Century

The association between the phrase 'art for art's sake' and the Aesthetic Movement meant that, when that movement declined, the popularity of the phrase declined with it. Nevertheless, it continued to be used - though more casually and loosely - and the idea it compresses continued to be important. The idea likely contributed to the development of formalism as well. For example, Clive Bell's notion of 'significant form' argued that form in art was expressive and meaningful apart from any objects it might serve to depict (and, therefore, it was of value regardless of the objects it depicted). In this respect 'art for art's sake' was an important impetus behind the development of abstract art and Abstract Expressionism, and it had an afterlife in the high modernist theories of critics such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried.

Opponents of Art for Art's Sake

The idea that art should not be judged by other criteria, such as religion or politics, has inevitably attracted occasional opponents who either wished it to support a particular cause, or refrain from expressing particular views. But in the 20th century, 'art for art's sake' attracted more consistent opposition from a series of avant-gardes who reacted against the perceived insularity of abstract art, and sought instead to reconnect art and life. One can trace such opposition in movements as diverse as the Constructivism, Dada and Surrealism, and the many post-war movements that have revived earlier avant-garde strategies, such as Conceptual art and Pop art. For many of the Constructivists, for example, the doctrine of 'art for art's sake' was a barrier to art being put in the service of social revolution. Meanwhile, many different artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, attacked the doctrine as a falsehood, arguing that it merely serves to conceal and protect a particular set of values. For Duchamp, the call for 'art for art's sake' was merely a call to maintain a status quo: it maintained an art that had turned inward, and away from everyday concerns, and it maintained the traditional structure of the art world - the world of galleries and museums - that supported it. Duchamp's attack on 'art for art's sake' has perhaps been the most influential of the past century, and very few now believe that art does exist in a separate sphere from life's other concerns. Given that it does not, and that art is entangled in all kinds of partisan issues, most now believe that making aesthetic value judgements - declaring one work of art to be better than another - is almost impossible.

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
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Aesthetic Movement
Aesthetic Movement
The Aesthetic Movement emerged first in Britain in the late-nineteenth century. Inspired by a rejection of previous styles in both the fine and decorative arts, its adherents were committed to the pursuit of beauty and the doctrine of 'art for art's sake'. Believing that art had declined in an era of utility and rationalism, they claimed that art deserved to be judged on its own terms alone.

Modern Art Information Aesthetic Movement
Formalism
Formalism
Formalism is an approach to interpreting art that emphasizes qualities of form - color, line, shape, texture and so forth. Formalists generally argue that these are at the heart of art's value. The belief that form can be detached from content, or subject matter, goes back to antiquity, but it has been particularly important in shaping accounts of modern and abstract art. In recent decades formalism has met with resistance, and a range of other approaches, including social and psychoanalytic, have gained popularity.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Formalism
Romanticism
Romanticism
Romanticism was a nineteenth-century movement that celebrated the powers of emotion and intuition over rational analysis or classical ideals. Romantic artists emphasized awe, beauty, and the sublime in their works, which frequently charted the darker or chaotic sides of human life.

Modern Art Information Romanticism
Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert was a French writer who is counted among the greatest Western novelists. He is known especially for his first published novel, Madame Bovary (1857), and for his scrupulous devotion to his art and style. At the time of his death he was widely regarded as the most influential French Realist. Flaubert exercised an extraordinary influence over Guy de Maupassant, Edmond de Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet, and Emile Zola.

Modern Art Information Gustave Flaubert
Stéphane Mallarmé
Stéphane Mallarmé
Stéphane Mallarmé was a French Symbolist poet and critic in the late 1800s. Densely written, his poetry played with both the meaning and sound of words, making it difficult to translate. His work was greatly influential on the Dada and Surrealist movements.

Modern Art Information Stéphane Mallarmé
Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire
Charles Pierre Baudelaire was a French poet and art critic during the mid-nineteenth century. His poetry depicted the harsh realities of urban poverty in nineteenth-century Paris, and often focused on the flanuer (one who wanders the city to experience it). The Baudelarian idea of the flaneur is a lasting legacy of the modern era.

Modern Art Information Charles Baudelaire
J.A.M. Whistler
J.A.M. Whistler
James Whistler was a nineteenth-century American expatriate artist. Educated in France and later based in London, Whistler was a famous proponent of art-for-art's-sake, and an esteemed practictioner of tonal harmony in his canvases, often characterized by his masterful use of blacks and greys, as seen in his most famous work, Whistler's Mother (1871). Whistler was also known as an American Impressionist, and in 1874 he famously turned down an invitation from Degas to exhibit his work with the French Impressionists.

Modern Art Information J.A.M. Whistler
Lord Frederick Leighton
Lord Frederick Leighton
Lord Frederick Leighton was a leading figure in Victorian art and the first artist to be ennobled. He was President of the Royal Academy for almost two decades. His works depicted historical, biblical and classical subject matter. Leighton was also a portraitist.

Modern Art Information Lord Frederick Leighton
Walter Pater
Walter Pater
Walter Pater was a nineteenth-century English essayist, novelist, Oxford professor and art critic. Pater's most celebrated writings were a series of essays and criticism on the great Renaissance painters Michelangelo, Leonardo and others, later collected in his 1873 book Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Pater and his writings are considered a key precursor to the modern literature associated with the Aesthetic Movement, and the writings of Oscar Wilde, Roger Fry and Evelyn Waugh, among others.

Modern Art Information Walter Pater
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was a nineteenth-century Irish poet and playwright, and is widely considered one of the modern era's most influential writers, celebrated for his dry wit, irony and flamboyant character. Commonly associated with the Aesthetic Movement of writing and philosophy, Wilde's greatest works include the The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), which proved to be his final play before passing 1900.

Modern Art Information Oscar Wilde
Clive Bell
Clive Bell
Clive Bell was an English Art critic associated with formalism and the Bloomsbury Group. He believed that knowledge of the historical context of a painting, or the intention of the painter is unnecessary for the appreciation of visual art. Bell was also a key proponent of the claim that the value of art lies in its ability to produce a distinctive aesthetic experience in the viewer.

Modern Art Information Clive Bell
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clement Greenberg
Michael Fried
Michael Fried
Michael Fried is an American art critic and historian who gained acclaim for his ideas on "theatricality" in art. Fried applied this idea to the artistic style Minimalism, which he believed negatively blurred the boundaries between natural art forms and non-art objects.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Michael Fried
Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
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Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Dada
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Conceptual Art
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
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Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp
The French artist Marcel Duchamp was an instrumental figure in the avant-garde art worlds of Paris and New York. Moving through Dada, Surrealism, readymades, sculpture, and installation, his work involves conceptual play and an implicit attack on bourgeois art sensibilities.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Marcel Duchamp
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

Title: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874)

Artist: James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Artwork Description & Analysis: The American-born painter James Whistler was a central figure in Britain's late 19th century Aesthetic movement, which made 'art for art's sake' its rallying cry. Color and mood were crucial to his art, his paintings often bordering on abstraction. His titles, like that for Nocturne in Black and Gold, often emphasized these formal qualities, over and above the ostensible subject of the picture, which in this case is a fireworks display on the River Thames in London. His titles also often borrowed musical terms such as 'nocturne' and 'harmony', thereby insisting on painting's relationship to the arts in general, rather than its relationship to the outside world. When he exhibited Nocturne at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, the critic John Ruskin accused him of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler famously responded by suing Ruskin for libel, and though he won the case, he was awarded only a tiny amount in damages, and the huge costs he incurred later led to his bankruptcy.


Oil on wood - Detroit Institute of Arts

Fountain
Fountain

Title: Fountain (1917)

Artist: Marcel Duchamp

Artwork Description & Analysis: Duchamp's Fountain staged the 20th century's most powerful attack on the notion that art can be judged separately from other spheres of life. Duchamp did not create the work so much as chose it, purchasing a conventional urinal and signing it with a pseudonym, R. Mutt. Submitted to the 1917 Society for Independent Artists, the object should have been included without debate in the Society's annual exhibition, since membership alone entailed the right to exhibit. But Fountain was rejected on the grounds of immorality, proving that, despite assumptions to the contrary, other value judgements - such as, in this case, morality - did indeed inform aesthetic judgement. Curiously, however, Fountain's supporters did employ a version of the notion of 'art for art's sake' to defend the object, arguing that Duchamp's choice of the object imbued it with special significance, hence making it eligible for consideration as art and putting it beyond the bounds of complaints about morality. So if the affair demonstrates the beginning of the end of 'art for art's sake' in the 20th century, it also shows its strange tenacity.


Urinal - Philadelphia Museum of Art

Selection of Materials: Iron, Stucco, Glass, Asphalt
Selection of Materials: Iron, Stucco, Glass, Asphalt

Title: Selection of Materials: Iron, Stucco, Glass, Asphalt (1914)

Artist: Vladimir Tatlin

Artwork Description & Analysis: Vladimir Tatlin was powerfully influenced by the reliefs he saw in Picasso's studio in Paris when he visited in 1913-14. But upon his return to Russia he began to put the lessons of Cubist collage to very new uses, devising early Constructivist collages such as Selection of Materials. It deserves to be called Constructivist (i.e. a 'construction', not a 'composition') because, as contemporary critic Nikolai Tarabukin put it, "the material dictates the form, and not the opposite." The doctrine of 'art for art's sake' laid great emphasis on form and composition, and in that sense Tatlin opposed it, favoring instead an art that might act as a laboratory for the development of designs for everyday life. And indeed, eventually, this experimental period of Russian Constructivism gave way to one in which artists went to work designing objects such as packaging and advertising for the new Communist authorities - a far cry from 'art for art's sake.'


Iron, Stucco, Glass, Asphalt - untraced

Full Fathom Five
Full Fathom Five

Title: Full Fathom Five (1947)

Artist: Jackson Pollock

Artwork Description & Analysis: Full Fathom Five was among the first drip paintings Jackson Pollock completed. Its surface is clotted with an assortment of detritus, from cigarette butts to coins and a key. The top-most layers were created by pouring lines of black and shiny silver house paint, though a large part of the paint's crust was applied by brush and palette knife, creating an angular counterpoint to the weaving lines. Pollock's drip paintings have been interpreted in numerous ways, some seeing them as inventing a new abstract language for the unconscious, others suggesting that they evoke the night sky, or in this case, the depths of the ocean. However, the critic Clement Greenberg, who was Pollock's most powerful outspoken supporter, insisted that their value lay purely in their formal achievements, such as the manner in which they broke up the rigid, shallow space that had dominated abstract art since Cubism, and replaced it with something more loose and open. Greenberg held a strong belief in the inherent value of abstract art, arguing that it offered the only means in which to say something new in a world increasingly full of conventional, representational images. He also believed that formal analysis held the key to making judgements about quality in art, and discussion of all other matters - i.e. theme, subject matter - was irrelevant. And although Greenberg rarely used the term "art for art's sake," in these respects the doctrine had a powerful impact on his thought.


Oil on canvas, with nails, buttons, tacks, key, coins, cigarettes, matches, etc. - Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.