The Important Artists and Works of Art for Art's Sake
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.
Oil on canvas - Guildhall Art Gallery, London
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket
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.
Oil on panel - The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room
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.
Oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood - Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC
The Peacock Skirt
Aubrey Beardsley's stylish ink sketch depicts the Biblical figure of Salome, whose failed seduction of John the Baptist leads to his beheading. Salome was the subject of Oscar Wilde's eponymous one-act tragedy, written in French in 1891. When the English translation was published in 1894, it contained ten woodblock illustrations based on ink sketches by Beardsley, of which The Peacock Skirt is the second. Depicting the figure of Salome to the left in a long, elaborately patterned dress, with a peacock veil and headdress, the work embodies the qualities of elaborate beauty and luxury which Beardsley and other Art-for-Art's-Sake artists promoted. At the same time, the sinister figure to the right, whose made-up face and feminine dress contrasts with their hairy legs, embraces the ideas of androgyny and sexual fluidity with which the movement was (often disapprovingly) associated.
The origins of Beardsley's Salome series are in a single illustration depicting the anti-heroine kissing the severed head of John the Baptist, printed in 1893. Upon seeing the image, Wilde recognized an artistic affinity and invited Beardsley to illustrate the entire narrative. The illustration was heavily influenced by Whistler's decorations for the peacock room, as well as the stylized lines of Japanese woodblock prints; the resultant long, sinuous depiction of bodies anticipates the work of Gustave Klimt and other Art Nouveau artists.
Beardsley contributed much to the Art for Art's Sake approach, in particular developing its connections with Japonism and the decorative arts. At the same time, the Salome series reflects Beardsley's interest in courting and exacerbating the scandal which the Art for Art's Sake movement was already attracting. Salome is perhaps the original femme fatale, ordering John the Baptist killed by her father Herod - himself incestuously infatuated with his daughter - after the Christian prophet refuses her sexual advances. She and her story thus represent a number of themes, such as sexual transgression, incest, and female lust, which scandalized the patriarchal, puritanical Victorian public. In focusing on her as a worthy subject of drama, Wilde and Beardsley were quite deliberately courting controversy, while promoting lifestyle choices such as plurality of gender and sexual freedom.
Woodblock Print - Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge MA.
Duchamp's famous artwork - consisting of a mass-manufactured urinal placed on its back and signed with the artist's pseudonym R. Mutt - powerfully challenged the idea of Art for Art's Sake, while also carrying it into new realms. Fountain was submitted to the 1917 Society for Independent Artists and should have been included in the Society's annual exhibition, since membership alone granted the right to exhibit. However, the work was rejected on the grounds of immorality (proving that, despite assumptions to the contrary, other judgments - in this case, morality - did indeed inform aesthetic judgment.) This work bore almost no trace of the artist's input or - so it seemed - creative vision or skill, thus subverting the notion foundational to Art for Art's Sake that a painting or sculpture should have an inherent aesthetic or formal value.
Paradoxically, however, the work's supporters did employ a version of the notion of Art for Art's Sake to defend the object, arguing that Duchamp's mere presentation the urinal imbued it with special significance, as an artwork which he had created. So, if the controversy demonstrated the fading importance of Art for Art's Sake in the 20th century, it also showed the concept's tenacity, as it became part of the foundation of modern art.
As contemporary art historian Peter Bürger wrote, "the autonomy of art is a category of bourgeois society...The relative dissociation of the work of art from the praxis of life in bourgeois society thus becomes transformed into the (erroneous) idea that the work of art is totally independent of society." Bürger noted how "Duchamp's provocation not only unmasks the art market where the signature means more than the quality of the work; it radically questions the very principle of art in bourgeois society according to which the individual is considered the creator of the work of art."
Full Fathom Five
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 uppermost 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 supporter, insisted that their value lay purely in their formal elements, as he believed in the inherent value of abstract art, arguing that it offered the only means by which to say something new in a world increasingly full of conventional, representational images. He also believed that formal analysis held the key to aesthetic evaluation and that discussion of all other matters - such as theme and subject matter - was irrelevant. As art historian Anna Lovatt states, "the notion of the self-reflexive, autonomous medium propounded by modernist critics - most notably Clement Greenberg," became a leading trend in the twentieth century.
In effect, while the idea of Art for Art's Sake had nominally fallen out of fashion by the early twentieth century, it continued to inform trends in modern art, and its emphasis on the value of art as disconnected from all thematic concerns, became the grounds for Greenberg's concepts of medium specificity, as well as his definition of the avant-garde and his arguments in favor of abstract art. As Lovatt adds, "[b]y emphasizing the opacity and autonomy of each 'medium', Greenberg disengaged the word from its relational and communicative connotations. Thus isolated, the modernist 'medium' was objectified and reified as a thing-in-itself, abstracted from the broader conditions of artistic production and reception."
Oil on canvas, with nails, buttons, tacks, key, coins, cigarettes, matches, etc. - The Museum of Modern Art, New York City