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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.

Most Important Art

Art for Art's Sake Famous Art

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

Artist: James Abbott McNeill Whistler
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.
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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.

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Useful Resources on Art for Art's Sake

Books

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

books

Art for Art's Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting

Art for Art's Sake and Literary Life: How Politics and Markets Helped Shape the Ideology and Culture of Aestheticism, 1790-1990

The Aesthetic Movement

website

Art For Art's Sake

By Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe
Professor of Art History

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