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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The phrase “art for art's sake” expresses both a battle
cry and a creed; it is an appeal to emotion as well
as to mind. Time after time, when artists have felt
themselves threatened from one direction or another,
and have had to justify themselves and their activities,
they have done this by insisting that art serves no
ulterior purposes but is purely an end in itself. When
asked what art is good for, in the sense of what utility
it has, they have replied that art is not something to
be used as a means to something else, but simply to
be accepted and enjoyed on its own terms.

The explicit and purposive assertion of art for art's
sake is a strictly modern phenomenon. The phrase itself
begins to appear only in the early years of the nine-
teenth century, and it is some time after that before
a recognizable meaning and intention can be said to
emerge. This is quite as would be expected. For before
there can be any need and reason to assert that artistic
activity is self-sufficient and works of art are ends in
themselves, a certain intellectual and cultural climate
must occur. The essential catalyzing agent in this
process can be identified in a few words: it consists
in the tendency of the human career toward com-
plexity, specialization, and fragmentation. So long as
the structure of life—individual and social, economic
and functional, theoretical and practical—is relatively
compact and cohesive, there is little occasion for the
emergence of private groups with a strong sense of
their own interests and tasks as opposed to those of
other groups. Men had obviously all along filled differ-
ent roles requiring different skills and directed toward
different purposes; and their respective duties, respon-
sibilities, and powers had varied across a wide spec-
trum. But both the actual structure of society and the
attitude of men towards society, were largely holistic
and organismic. Consequently, the pursuits that we
now distinguish quite sharply, such as religion, moral-
ity, politics, law, science, technology, art, etc., were
not formerly regarded or practiced in such a separatist
manner. The same individuals were often engaged in
several of these activities, which were viewed as as-
pects of a single undertaking rather than as distinct
endeavors. Though men had certainly practiced art,
they had not, with certain exceptions, been highly
conscious of themselves as artists.

Beginning with the Renaissance, this cohesive cul-
tural and intellectual unity starts to crumble, and the
end of the eighteenth century sees it thoroughly disin-
tegrated. By then, divergent and divisive tendencies
are at work throughout the social fabric, finding ex-
pression in what we call the religious, political, scien-
tific, and industrial revolutions. Men's newly awakened
interests contrast with their old habits and commit-
ments. Inspired by an intense dedication to specific
values and purposes, they are drawn together into
various groups, each with a strong sense of its own
identity and mission. As the result of this broad social
and cultural movement, men begin to think of them-
selves as scientists, ministers, politicians, financiers, or
artists; and they assert that as such they have a function
of particular importance and so require particular

The more precise intellectual matrix of the doctrine
of art for art's sake can most plausibly be located in
the philosophical system of Immanuel Kant, though
it must at once be added that Kant certainly did not
intend this outcome and would have repudiated it
vehemently. But he still made it possible and even
inevitable. Through the three Critiques, of Pure Rea-
son, Practical Reason,
and Judgment, Kant established
a triadic division of man's mental capacities and func-
tions. To paraphrase somewhat loosely Kant's formida-
ble terminology, man is endowed with understanding
or cognition, with a sense of duty or conscience, and
with aesthetic taste or sensibility. Kant's interest was
focused on the first two of these; he was anxious to
place science and morality on a firm foundation, and
so to avoid the drift toward relativism and skepticism
that had reached a climax in the work of Hume. The
third Critique, that of Judgment, plays a more ancillary
role, with its significance deriving from architectonic
considerations rather than from the intrinsic interest
of its subject matter.

Even if this was true of Kant, and the question is
highly debatable, it was certainly not true of his imme-
diate converts and followers in German Idealism. For
what Kant had done was establish the aesthetic as an
autonomous domain, coordinate with man's cognitive
and moral faculties and playing a distinct role of its
own in the life of the mind. The Idealists were quick
to see the possibilities that this schema offered them.
Revolting more or less consciously against Rationalist
tradition, with its emphasis upon balance and propor-
tion, its insistence upon strict adherence to rules of
composition, its exaltation of reason and science, and
its morality of detachment and calculation, the Ro-
mantics were anxious to find a way to escape from
the confinement of this creed and to justify those other
aspects of human nature and existence that rationalists
neglected or denigrated.

Friedrich Schiller was the first to exploit Kant's
doctrine of the aesthetic for this purpose. But he was
followed in rapid succession by Friedrich Schelling,
Hegel, and Schopenhauer; and then, at only a slight
remove, by the wave of Romanticism that swept over
France and England as well as Germany, propelled on


the thought of men of such diverse temperaments and
talents as Herder and Goethe, Wordsworth, Coleridge,
Shelley, the brothers Schlegel, and Baudelaire, to men-
tion but a random few. Despite its varied manifesta-
tions, this movement had a form and unity deriving
from two dominant themes.

First, and more generally, there was the common
conviction that art played a serious and significant role
in life, that it exercised a human faculty that nothing
else could touch, and that it made a unique contri-
bution to man's understanding of the world. Before this,
the value of works of art had been primarily regarded
as either utilitarian or ornamental; art was thought of
as a subsidiary and derivative phenomenon. Now the
aesthetic life was raised to a position of high dignity
and importance. Second, and more specifically, art was
now defined by reference to a particular human faculty
and need that brought it into being. Interpretations
of this aesthetic source varied, but it was always local-
ized in the sensuous, emotional, and perceptual aspect
of man's nature. It was held that artists grasped reality
in an immediate and intuitive manner, embodied it in
a material form, and so made it available to direct
apprehension. In short, art yields concrete insight into
the reality that reason can present only in the guise
of abstract concepts.

The stage was thus set for the appearance of the
idea of art for art's sake. But its actual entrance still
required two further developments. Artists had to ac-
quire a strong sense of their identity as artists, of the
intrinsic significance of the art they created, and of
their need to create freely without interference and
harassment. And other established social groups and
institutions had to become afraid of the threat that such
free artistic expression might pose to their conventional
values, beliefs, and practices. Once these conditions
existed, censorship, though already widely imposed on
literature since the Renaissance, was now directed
against many forms of art, both by the church and the
state, in an effort to control and direct art, or keep it
subservient to special uses and standards. Artists replied
by asserting that art was an end in itself, to be created
and judged in terms of purely aesthetic criteria.

The idea of art for art's sake is thus to be seen as
partly a declaration of artistic independence and partly
an expression of the alienation of the artist from soci-
ety. It is at once a claim and a complaint. Insofar as
artists are men, their rejection by society causes them
to suffer psychically as well as economically; insofar
as they are artists, they glory in it as a proof of their
uniqueness. So the alienation that the artist expresses
when he dedicates himself to art for art's sake is a
compound of protest and pride. In this guise, the idea
serves chiefly to sustain the artist's ego.

As a declaration of artistic independence, the idea
plays a far more significant and constructive role. For
here it becomes a device by which artists justify them-
selves in the paths they follow and protect their work
against attack from an outraged society. So the history
of art for art's sake is essentially a history of the various
attempts that are made to subvert art, as the artists
envisage it, by subordinating art to other purposes and
demands; the idea takes shape gradually and errati-
cally, as the threat comes now from one quarter now
from another. Although there is very little continuity
and development to be found in this history, it can
be seen as containing four major chapters, each con-
sisting of a counterattack against a different enemy.
These enemies can be conveniently labeled as conven-
tional morality and religion, utility and didacticism,
science, and subject matter.

Apparently the first to use the phrase L'art pour l'art
was Benjamin Constant in an entry in his Journal intime
for February 11, 1804. It is introduced quite casually
to refer to the aesthetic doctrines of Kant and Schell-
ing, which Constant finds “very ingenious.” The idea
then occurs with increasing frequency in the writings
of the Romantics and of all those who, like the Roman-
tics, felt the special calling of the artist and the aliena-
tion and lack of understanding under which artists
suffered: this list would include particularly Baudelaire,
Gautier, Hugo, Flaubert, and Mallarmé in France;
Whistler, Pater, and Oscar Wilde in England. In the
course of time, the phrase accretes around itself a large
but miscellaneous body of passions, convictions, com-
mitments, complaints, and especially antipathies.

In accord with the pattern suggested above, these
artistic attitudes and purposes can be seen as clustered
around four poles. Artists inveigh against conventional
bourgeois morality, with its prudery and hypocrisy, and
against all of the measures through which the govern-
ment, the church, and the press seek to impose this
morality and suppress any deviations from it. They
repudiate with equal vehemence and scorn the spirit
of utility, which asks of everything what practical
purpose it serves and is incapable of accepting and
enjoying anything as simply good in itself. In a similar
vein, they reject the claims of didacticism, refusing to
acknowledge that their art should proclaim any moral
truths or lessons. Artists also express an intense anxiety
about the inroads of science and the spread of the
scientific mentality, with its emphasis on material
things and mechanical processes, and its worship of
brute facts. Finally, artists reproach the sentimentality
of the public, which looks not at their works of art
but merely at the objects, scenes, and events that these
depict; that is, they resent the slavery of subject matter.

The tone and content of these complaints can best


be conveyed by a few quotations from the artists
themselves. James A. McNeill Whistler, the painter,
made a habit of delivering lectures, granting in-
terviews, and writing letters to newspapers, all of
which had the dual purpose of ridiculing popular
opinions and tastes concerning art and preaching the
doctrine of art for art's sake. These have since been
collected in a volume under the title of The Gentle
Art of Making Enemies
(1890), and they constitute a
rich mine of doctrine and diatribe. Whistler's statement
of the case is direct and pungent:

People have acquired the habit of looking, as who should
say, not at a picture, but through it, at some human fact,
that shall, or shall not, from a social point of view, better
their mental or moral state.... Alas! Ladies and gentlemen,
Art has been maligned. She has nought in common with
such practices.... Purposing in no way to better others,
... having no desire to teach.... Nature contains the
elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard
contains the notes of all music!... To say to the painter,
that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player,
that he may sit on the piano

(pp. 138, 136, 142-43).

Théophile Gautier urges a similar doctrine, insisting
particularly upon the necessity for an absolute divorce
between man's artistic and practical pursuits. His
argument is brief and pointed: “Only those things that
are altogether useless can be truly beautiful; anything
that is useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some
need, and the needs of man are base and disgusting, as
his nature is weak and poor” (Gautier [1834], p. 22).

Walter Pater puts the case in a more philosophical
way, seeking not only to extol art but also to explain
and justify its preeminent importance. His argument
rests upon the contrast between the richness and fleet-
ingness of immediate experience and the bare abstract
concepts to which analytical thought seeks to reduce
it. And he insists that the entire meaning and value
of life reside in the wealth and intensity of experiences.
The highest wisdom lies in explaining things, much less
in using them, but simply in sensing and feeling them.
He concludes in these terms: “Of such wisdom, the
poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art
for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you pro-
posing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality
of your moments as they pass, and simply for these
moments' sake” (Pater [1873], pp. 238-39).

In the twentieth century the idea of art for art's sake
undergoes a rather radical transformation, generating
a more serious and systematic doctrine, and exerting
a more positive influence upon artistic creation. It now
appears in new interpretations of such concepts as
“pure poetry,” “significant form,” “plastic form.” The
significance of this movement lies in the insistence that
the work of art is an autonomous and self-contained
entity; its meaning and value are exhaustively con-
tained in its material and formal being. Works of art
do not need to borrow significance from biographical,
psychological, historical, or sociological sources; their
significance lies in the formal structures that they real-
ize in a material medium. These ideas had already
found eloquent expression as early as 1854 in Eduard
Hanslick's book, The Beautiful in Music; they were
forcefully restated for the context of literature by
A. C. Bradley in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909);
they received their most incisive advocacy in Clive
Bell's Art (1919) and Roger Fry's Vision and Design
(1920). Since then, this doctrine has become a com-
monplace of artistic creation and criticism, and has
served as the theoretical source and justification of
such important—and divergent—contemporary devel-
opments as those of abstract, nonobjective, non-
representational, and constructivist art, as well as
Dada, Surrealism, and Cubism.

So the idea of art for art's sake has now ceased to
be an instrument of protest and defense, and has be-
come one of the central tenets of official aesthetic
dogma. It is not he who does or praises art for art's
sake who must justify himself, but rather he who would
assign to art any values, or judge art by any standards,
other than those that are intrinsic to it. Yet the ad-
herents of art for art's sake seem to be as uneasy in
their new security as they were in their former aliena-
tion. At the same time that they proclaim the auton-
omy of the artist and his art, their freedom from any
extrinsic purpose or obligation, they also insist that the
artist is a seer and a prophet, and that through his art
he makes available both a truth and a mode of existence
that are essential to human well-being. The most star-
tling illustration of this ambivalence occurs in Clive
Bell's Art, where, within the brief span of forty pages,
Bell first urges a rigid doctrine of pure art and then
proclaims that art makes us aware “of the God in
everything, of the universal in the particular, of the
all-pervading rhythm” (Bell [1914], p. 54). But similar
conflicts of intention crop up on virtually every occa-
sion when contemporary artists write about their art.

The truth of the matter seems to be that the idea
of art for art's sake is one of that numerous class of
important half-truths whose validity and vitality are
dependent upon the effective presence of their com-
plementary half-truths. This idea is necessary to pre-
serve the independence of the artist and the integrity
of the artistic enterprise. But its other half, which is
the idea of art for life's sake, is equally necessary to
guarantee the integration of the artist into his society
and hence the meaningfulness of his art.



Albert C. Barnes, The Art in Painting, 2nd ed. (New York,
1928). Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics from Classical
Greece to the Present
(New York, 1966). Clive Bell, Art
(London, 1914). A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry
(Oxford, 1909). Albert Cassagne, La Théorie de l'art pour
l'art en France
(Paris, 1906). Rose Egan, The Genesis of the
Theory of Art for Art's Sake
(Northampton, 1921; 1924).
Roger Fry, Vision and Design (London, 1920). Théophile
Gautier, Mademoiselle de Maupin (Paris, 1834). Edmund
Gurney, The Power of Sound (London, 1880). Eduard
Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music (London, 1891). Hilaire
Hiler, Why Abstract? (New York, 1945). José Ortega y
Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art (Princeton, 1948).
Walter Pater, The Renaissance (Oxford, 1873). Louise
Rosenblatt, L'Idée de l'art pour l'art dans la littérature
anglaise pendant la période victorienne
(Paris, 1931). Irving
Singer, “The Aesthetics of 'Art for Art's Sake,'” JAAC, 12,
3 (1954), 343-59. James A. McNeill Whistler, The Gentle
Art of Making Enemies
(London, 1890). John Wilcox, “The
Beginnings of L'art pour l'art,” JAAC, 11 (1953), 860-77.


[See also Romanticism in Literature; Romanticism
in Post-Kantian Philosophy.]