Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Art for Art's Sake Collage

Art for Art's Sake

Started: 1830
Ended: 1900
Art for Art's Sake Timeline
"Art should be independent of all clap-trap - 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."
1 of 11
James Whistler Signature
"there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than... this poem written solely for the poem's sake."
2 of 11
Edgar Allen Poe
"L'art pour l'art without purpose, for all purpose perverts art."
3 of 11
Benjamin Constant
"Art for art's sake, with no purpose, for any purpose perverts art. But art achieves a purpose which is not its own."
4 of 11
Benjamin Constant
"Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor weak nature. The most useful place in a house is the lavatory."
5 of 11
Théophile Gautier
"...in general, whenever something becomes useful, it ceases to be beautiful."
6 of 11
Théophile Gautier
"Art for art's sake is an empty phrase. Art for the sake of truth, art for the sake of the good and the beautiful, that is the faith I am searching for."
7 of 11
George Sand
"All art is quite useless."
8 of 11
Oscar Wilde Signature
"The vulgar herd stroll through the rooms and pronounce the pictures 'nice' or 'splendid.' Those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing. This condition of art is called "art for art's sake." This neglect of inner meanings, which is the life of colours, this vain squandering of artistic power is called "art for art's sake."
9 of 11
Wassily Kandinsky Signature
"This idea of art for art's sake is a hoax."
10 of 11
Pablo Picasso Signature
"...the autonomy of art is a category of bourgeois society. It permits the description of art's detachment from the context of practical life as a historical development - that among the members of those classes which, at least at times, are free from the pleasures of the need of survival, a sensuousness could evolve that was not part of any needs-ends relationships."
11 of 11
Peter Bürger

Summary of Art for Art's Sake

Taken from the French, the term "l'art pour l'art," (Art for Art's Sake) expresses the idea that art has an inherent value independent of its subject-matter, or of any social, political, or ethical significance. By contrast, art should be judged purely on its own terms: according to whether or not it is beautiful, capable of inducing ecstasy or revery in the viewer through its formal qualities (its use of line, color, pattern, and so on). The concept became a rallying cry across nineteenth-century Britain and France, partly as a reaction against the stifling moralism of much academic art and wider society, with the writer Oscar Wilde perhaps its most famous champion. Although the phrase has been little used since the early twentieth century, its legacy lived on in many twentieth-century ideas concerning the autonomy of art, notably in various strains of formalism.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • The idea of Art for Art's sake has its origins in nineteenth-century France, where it became associated with Parisian artists, writers, and critics, including Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire. These figures and others put forward the idea that art should stand apart from all thematic, moral, and social concerns - a significant break from the post-Renaissance artistic tradition represented by contemporary academic painting, which favored historical and mythical scenes, and held that art should have a clear ethical message often connected to religion or state power.
  • Although Art for Art's Sake withdrew from all political and ideological concerns, it was nonetheless radical in rejecting the moralizing standards of its day. Artists such as Aubrey Beardsley delighted in shocking polite taste through images which had sexual or grotesque overtones. In this regard, Art for Art's Sake was often implicitly radical, and its program of seeking scandal informed the more politically charged activities of subsequent movements such as Dada and Futurism.
  • Although the term Art for Art's Sake fell out of favor by the end of the nineteenth century, the idea it stood for - that art had a value which stood apart from subject-matter, purely connected to formal qualities such as line, color, and tone - remained highly significant. Some such notion is at the basis of all abstraction, for example. Art for Art Sake can thus be seen to have predicted the work of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, for example, as well as the work of the Abstract Expressionists.

Overview of Art for Art's Sake

Art for Art's Sake Image

While some demanded that art only focus on aethetics (and be devoid of morality and the like), others, such as the famous writer George Sand said: "Talent imposes duties. Art for the truth, art for the good, art for the beautiful - that is the religion I seek."

Do Not Miss

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Modern Art is a period of art making that promoted the new and industrial world, free from derivation and historical references. And for the new to be possible, old ideas about art were often altogether abandoned, or deconstructed.

The Important Artists and Works of Art for Art's Sake

La Ghirlandata (1873)

Artist: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

A woman delicately plays a harp while two angels circle pensively above her head. The rich velvet of the woman's green dress flows into the luxurious vegetation that surrounds her, her striking red hair echoed by the garland of flowers and the angels' auburn locks. William Michael Rossetti, the brother of the artist, translated this work's as "The Garlanded Lady" or "Lady of the Wreath," with Alexa Wilding, the model depicted in the center of the work, portrayed as the ideal of love and beauty.

This is a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a British artist associated with both Aestheticism and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and known for his tempestuous and often exploitative romantic relationships with female models and artists. This work's title, along with the idealized treatment of subject matter, may be intended to evoke the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (c. 1503-19), then often known as La Giaconda ("the happy one" or "the jocund one"), and revered by critics associated with Art for Art's Sake such as Theophile Gautier and Walter Pater. In effect, Rossetti may have meant his idealized beauty to become an icon for the Aesthetic movement just as the Mona Lisa had become an icon of Renaissance art.

In its guide to the work, the Guildhall Art Gallery notes that the painting ushered in "a new aesthetic of painting," as every element contributed to the elevation of beauty. William Michael Rossetti wrote that his brother's intent was to "to indicate, more or less, youth, beauty, and the faculty for art worthy of a celestial audience, all shadowed by mortal doom." In this respect, the painting summed up the "Cult of Beauty" for which the Pre-Raphaelites stood, and represents an important contribution to the principles of Art for Art's Sake.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874)

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

Artist: James Abbott McNeill Whistler

This iconic painting depicts a firework display at Cremorne Gardens in London. A few shadowy figures can be discerned in the foreground, depicting the shore of the Thames River, but most of the canvas is given over to the black night sky, lit up by the rocket's falling gold sparks and the explosive smoke from the firework battery on the horizon. With its dreamy wash of color and abstracted figures, this painting represented the emergence of a new approach within painting which emphasized the artist's freedom to represent a mood or emotion at the expense of representational accuracy.

This painting, the last in Whistler's series of so-called "nocturnes," became important talismans of the idea of Art for Art's Sake, with the artist stating that "[a]rt should be independent of all clap-trap - should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear." Color and mood were crucial to Whistler's work, with his paintings often bordering on abstraction, while his titles often used musical terms such as "nocturne" and "harmony" to insist on painting's relationship to other artforms, particularly music, which had a 'pure' aesthetic quality not connected to themes or symbolism.

No work is a better example of Whistler's artistic stance. Perhaps for that reason, it became the subject of legal dispute after Whistler sued the noted critic John Ruskin for attacking the painting as worthless and poorly executed. While Whistler won the case, he received only a single farthing in settlement, and his legal fees contributed to his subsequent bankruptcy. Despite this Pyrrhic victory, Whistler's defense played a key role in establishing the principles of art as an entirely liberated pursuit disconnected from all conventions of society, politics, or morality, which would be important to the development of modernism. Art critic James Jones notes that Whistler described a painting as "an arrangement of light, form and colour," an emphasis which predicts, for example, the movement of Abstract Expressionism in the mid-twentieth century.

James Whistler: Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-77)

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-77)

Artist: James Whistler

The concept of Art for Art's Sake, via the Aesthetic movement, had a transformative effect on interior design and architecture. As art critic Fiona MacCarthy writes, "[o]ne of the main tenets of aestheticism was that art was not confined to painting and sculpture and the false values of the art market. Potential for art is everywhere around us, in our homes and public buildings, in the detail of the way we choose to live our lives."

This photograph depicts the famous Peacock Room, named for the turquoise, gold, and blue murals featuring a peacock motif and designed by James Abbott McNeill Whistler for the home of the shipping magnate Frederick Leyland. Leyland's centerpiece for his dining room was Whistler's painting The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863-65), while the interior design embodied Whistler's enthusiasm for Japonism, a style based on western perceptions of Japanese art and design. Whistler described his working process in the room as spontaneous and intuitive: "I just painted on. I went on - without design or sketch - it grew as I painted. And toward the end I reached [...] a point of perfection." He said the finished interior was a "harmony in blue and gold," in effect transforming the space into an artwork and elevating design to a fine art that existed for its own sake.

Whistler's design was enormously influential, informing the development of both the Anglo-Japanese style and the Aesthetic movement, which included all realms of design within its dictum. In a wider sense, the decoration of this room encapsulates the idea so important to exponents of Art for Art's Sake that, by surrounding themselves with beautiful things - not just artworks but walls, tables, chairs, and so on - the artist or art lover could become beautiful themselves.

Useful Resources on Art for Art's Sake

websites
articles
video clips
articles
Share
Do more

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"Art for Art's Sake Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
Available from:
First published on 01 Jul 2009. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]