Art For Arts Sake Essay Definition

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"Art for art's sake" is the usual English rendition of a French slogan, "l'art pour l'art'," which was coined early in the nineteenth century by the French philosopher Victor Cousin and became a bohemian slogan during the nineteenth century. Although Théophile Gautier (1811 – 1872) did not use the actual words, the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) was the earliest manifesto of the idea that art was valuable as art, that artistic pursuits were their own justification, and that art did not need moral justification and was even allowed to be morally subversive.

The concept was adopted by a number of French, British and American writers and artists, and by proponents of the Aesthetic Movement such as Walter Pater. It was a rejection of the accustomed role of art, since the Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century, in the service of the state or official religion, and of Victorian-era moralism. It opened the way for artistic freedom of expression in the Impressionist movement and modern art. The slogan continued to be raised in defiance of those, including John Ruskin and the more recent Communist advocates of socialist realism who thought that the value of art lay in serving some moral or didactic purpose. The concept of “art for art’s sake” continues to be important in contemporary discussions of censorship, and of the nature and significance of art.

Art for Art’s Sake

The concept that art needs no justification, that it need serve no purpose, and that the beauty of the fine arts is reason enough for pursuing them was adopted by many leading French authors and in England by Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Arthur Symons. The term appeared in the works of the French painter and art critic Benjamin-Constant. Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849), in his essay "The Poetic Principle," argued that:

We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake [ … ] and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force:—but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem's sake.[1]

The American painter James McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903), who was averse to sentimentality in painting, commented that,

Art should be independent of all claptrap —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. (quoted in Smithsonian Magazine (Apr. 2006): 29)

English Aesthetic Movement

The slogan “art for art’s sake” is associated in the history of English art and letters with the Oxford don Walter Pater and his followers in the Aesthetic Movement, which was self-consciously in rebellion against Victorian moralism. It first appeared in English in two works published simultaneously in 1868: Pater's review of William Morris's poetry in the Westminster Review and in William Blake by Algernon Charles Swinburne. A modified form of Pater's review appeared in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), one of the most influential texts of the Aesthetic Movement. In his essays, Pater declared that life had to be lived intensely, following an ideal of beauty.

The artists and writers of the Aesthetic movement asserted that there was no connection between art and morality, and tended to hold that the arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages. They did not accept John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold's utilitarian conception of art as something moral or useful. They believed that art need only be beautiful, and developed the cult of beauty. Life should copy art, and nature was considered crude and lacking in design when compared to art. The main characteristics of the movement were suggestion rather than statement, sensuality, extensive use of symbols, and synaesthetic effects (correspondence between words, colors and music).

The concept of "art for art's sake" played a major role in Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Art and the Industrial Revolution

The concept of "art for art's sake" was a European social construct and was largely a product of the Industrial Revolution. In many cultures, the making of artistic images was a religious practice. In medieval Europe, art served primarily to ornament churches and palaces until the rise of a middle class created a demand for decorative art, illustrations, portraits, landscapes and paintings that documented what objects looked like. The Industrial Revolution brought about drastic changes which created serious social problems, such as the concentration of large numbers of people in urban slums, which caused people to question traditional values and reject romanticism.

While the academic painters of the nineteenth century felt an obligation to improve society by presenting images that reflected conservative moral values, examples of virtuous behavior, and Christian sentiments, modernists demanded freedom to choose their subject matter and style of painting. They were critical of political and religious institutions which they felt restricted individual liberty. Increasingly, artists sought freedom not only from the rules of academic art, but from the demands of the public, and claimed that art should not be produced for the sake of the public but for its own sake. The concept of “art for art’s sake” was also a challenge to conservative middle-class values, which still demanded that art have meaning or a purpose, such as to instruct, moralize or to delight the viewer. These progressive modernists adopted an antagonistic attitude towards society and came to be characterized as the avant-garde, those who stood at the forefront of a new age of art and culture.

Post-Modernism and Art for Art's Sake

The First World War signified a failure of tradition, and also demonstrated that scientific and technological progress would not automatically create a better world. A new cultural movement, Dadaism, began in Zürich, Switzerland, during World War I and reached its height from 1916 to 1920. Dadaists declared that modernist art had also failed, and rejected all prevailing artistic standards through anti-art cultural works. The Dadaist movement included public gatherings, demonstrations, and the publication of art and literary journals, and influenced later artistic styles and movements such as Surrealism, Pop Art and Fluxus.

The concept of “art for art’s sake” remains important in contemporary discussions about censorship and the nature and significance of art. Art has increasingly become a part of public life, in the form of advertising and of print and film media which is available to all members of society. Computer animation, graphic arts software and other new technologies allow the production of art which, though still original, is produced mechanically rather than manually by the artist. Performance art involves the participation and input of an audience and is beyond the control of an individual artist. These developments have triggered debates over the definition and requirements of “art,” and the role of the artist in society.

Patronage of the arts is increasingly in the hands of government or civic institutions which have an obligation to the society which they serve, and which are controlled by officials and politicians who are not necessarily able to appreciate art themselves, or who may be conservative. This raises questions of whether the government has the “right” to impose restrictions on artistic expression, or to enforce specific moral values. If artistic freedom requires economic independence, is it a privilege of the wealthy?

The Latin version of the slogan, "ars gratia artis," is used as a slogan by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and appears in the oval around the roaring head of Leo the Lion in their motion picture logo.

See also

  • Critical theory
  • Walter Benjamin


  1. ↑ Edgar Allan Poe. "The Poetic Principle", The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, vol. III, 1850), 1-20. Retrieved July 16, 2007.


  • Bell-Villada, Gene H. 1996. Art for art's sake & literary life: how politics and markets helped shape the ideology & culture of aestheticism, 1790-1990. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0803212607
  • Brookner, Anita. 2000. Romanticism and its discontents. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374251592
  • Ellmann, Richard. 1969. Oscar Wilde; a collection of critical essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0139594787
  • Pater, Walter, and Donald L. Hill. 1980. The Renaissance: studies in art and poetry: the 1893 text. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520033256
  • Prideaux, Tom. 1970. The world of Whistler, 1834-1903. New York: Time-Life Books.
  • Prettejohn, Elizabeth. 1999. After the Pre-Raphaelites: art and aestheticism in Victorian England. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0813527503
  • Prettejohn, Elizabeth. 2007. Art for art's sake: aestheticism in Victorian painting. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300135497
  • Seiler, R. M. 1980. Walter Pater, the critical heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710003803

External link

All links retrieved April 15, 2016.

General Philosophy Sources


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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The Idea of Art for Art’s Sake, its Origin and its Adaption in England

2. The Art for Art’s Sake Movement in English Literature in the Late 19th Century
2.1 Opinions on the Function of Art in the 19th Century
2.2 Social and Historical Factors
2.3 Development and Aims
2.4 The End of the Movement
2.5 Central Personalities and the Idea of Art for Art’s Sake in their Work
2.5.1 Algernon Swinburne
2.5.2 Walter Pater
2.5.3 Oscar Wilde

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction: The Idea of Art for Art’s Sake, its Origin and its Adaption in England

“All art is quite useless” (Wilde: 1985, 22). This short statement of Oscar Wilde in his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) expresses one of the central aspects of the idea of Art for Art’s Sake: art shall have no other aim than being art and it should be protected from subordination to any moral, didactic, social or political purpose. Art should be an end in itself and have no specific use in terms of the utilitarian philosophers. This concept is not one to emerge in the 19th century for the first time, but the movement referred to by the term Art for Art’s Sake is. In his essay Le Question de l’Art pour l’Art[1] M. Stapfer makes two assumptions on the character of the idea: Firstly, that it is “perpetually and recurrent and eternally insoluable” (Egan: 1921, 5) and secondly, that the movement was “French in character and origin” (Egan: 1921, 5). Indeed, it was the French writer Benjamin Constant who used the term ‘l’art pour l’art’ for the first time in his Journal Intime in 1804. (Cf. Egan: 1921, 9) Furthermore, the Frenchman Théophile Gautier is said to have invented the term in regard to its actual meaning. Although he did not use the phrase ‘l’art pour l’art’ itself, the preface to his novel Madmoiselle de Maupin (1835) is still regarded to be one of the most important manifestos of the idea (Cf. Baldick: 2004, 20). M. Cassagne[2] holds the opinion that the movement in France developed as a reaction to the moral values of the bourgeoisie, as well as to humanitarism (Cf. Egan: 1921, 5). Artists, frustrated and disappointed with politics, religion and society, began to withdraw into aesthetic isolation and to propagate the independence of art. In fact, these problems where not exceptionally French ones, but European (Cf. Egan: 1921, 5-9). Keeping that in mind, it is not surprising that the idea of l’art pour l’art was taken up and carried on in England as well as in Germany and in other countries.

In this term paper, I want to focus on the Art for Art’s Sake Movement in England. After having explained the common conception of art and of the functions of art in the 19th century England, I will deal with the (mainly social) reasons for its emergence, the development of the movement, its aims and its ending at the beginning of the 20th century. I will go on characterising a few of the central writers and critics of the movement, especially Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, and their contribution to the Art for Art’s Sake Movement.

2. The Art for Art’s Sake Movement in English Literature in the Late 19th Century

First of all, I want to mention that there did not exist a ‘school’ of Art for Art’s Sake in England. Only a minority of artists of the 19th century was involved in the ‘movement’ (Cf. Eckhoff: 1959, 7f.). What is called the Art for Art’s Sake Movement in this term paper, existed mainly of individual philosophic or artistic ideas of this minority. In the words of Rose Frances Egan, it is “useless to expect the theory to spring full-grown from the brain of any thinker: it is equally absurd to seek to find it in arbitrary perfection in the writings of any one man” (Egan: 1921, 7). Furthermore, there is no clear development, were an artist takes the views of a predecessor, reflects and improves them (Cf. Egan: 1921, 7-8). Nevertheless, in the following I will try to show a simplified and more or less consistent development of the history of Art for Art’s Sake in England.

2.1 Opinions on the Function of Art in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, it was common believe that art had either to idealize life in the manner of the Idealists or the Romantics, to criticize it or merely to present it, like the Realists did. Language and formal aspects were considered to be “the dress of thought” (Johnson: 1969, 15). Their task was to convey the thought, the moral, political or religious message – the really important component of art (Cf. Johnson: 1969, 15). John Ruskin, for example, considered art to be means to external, mainly didactic purposes. He – just like we will hear from the aesthetic writers – appreciated the beauty of art. But for him beauty and the beauty of art were not ends in themselves. The effect produced by them on the reader was the main goal. Beauty was to be found in a piece of art only in regard to the effect produced. So for him art was beautiful, if its consumers have learned or understood something by the help of it, in other words, if it had a didactic effect. But although Ruskin insisted upon moral values and didactic ends in art, he “prepared the way for Pater’s doctrine of the comliness of the individual life as a criterion of right conduct” (Baugh: 1967, 1475). Walter Pater finds beauty not in the effect produced but in art itself. Language and form are not the ‘dress’, but they themselves are the important criterion for good art (Cf. Johnson: 1969, 15). Art shall be enjoyable on its own terms. This new concept of the function of art, the Art for Art’s Sake Movement, is what I will deal with in the following.

2.2 Social and Historical Factors

Socially and historically the Art for Art’s Sake Movement is embedded in an age of great changes in all areas of life mainly caused by the Industrial Revolution. First of all it brought the end of the medieval feudal system with its more or less “compact and cohesive” (Jenkins: 2003, 108) structure of life and little reason for the emergence of specific groups with a strong sense of identity and of their opposition to other groups. Artists did not need to justify themselves and their activities (Cf. Jenkins: 2003, 108f.). Due to industrialization and specialization in all domains of life, separate groups with separate mentalities evolved. A social and cultural clash began to appear between a lot of those groups: middle class against working class, citizens against artists, artists against scientists (Cf. Seeber: 2004, 224 – 228). Artists began to regard themselves as such, having certain rights and responsibilities. So the development of Art for Art’s Sake has to be seen in the context of the movement to pluralism (Cf. Egan: 1921, 21). Secondly, the Industrial Revolution caused an acceleration of social change. With the growth of the middle class not only social problems came along, but also a change in the literary market. As the newly industrialized country was in need of trained workforce, education was improved. As a by-effet a literate, reading public evolved in the 19th century England. From 1800 onwards, artists were no longer dependent on aristocratic or upper class patrons. Instead they were often forced to write what the public wanted to read. One effect was the differentiation between real art and mass production or trivial literature, another was a change in the relationship between the artist and his public. The writers no longer wrote for the aristocratic classes or for noblemen, whom they had treated with respect, addressing somebody superior to them in rank, but for social or intellectual inferiors (Cf. Eckhoff: 1959, 9 – 11/ Seeber: 2004, 224 – 228). Thirdly, the Industrial Revolution made ugliness, destruction of nature, urbanisation and overpopulation permanent features of life in towns and cities. Artists, who felt to be dedicated to nature and beauty, were soon depressed and frustrated by this unaesthetic atmosphere of living. The Romantic writers began to react by fleeing into other, imaginative worlds to escape from reality. They appreciated what Industrialization had began to destroy: nature, beauty, sensitivity. A fourth outcome was the spread of the benthamist Utilitarianism and the scientific mentality. The emphasis was put on material, useful and practical elements in life. Everything was judged by its utility and its material advantage. Related to art that meant it was either completely useless and had to be abolished or every art had to fulfill a certain, usually didactic, purpose. Furthermore, everything that couldn’t be seen or touched or at least explained in a coherent theory, was believed not to exist (Cf. Eckhoff: 1959, 13). This attitude had serious consequences to religion. As faith is something invisible and the existence of God could not be prooved by scientific means, people were no longer sure about his existence. The hole produced through the weakening of the church and religious believes was often filled with even stricter moral values, which could be undermined by philosophic theory. Religion seemed no longer suitable as a basis for life, instead the categorical imperative and moral values based on philosophy became important (Cf. Eckhoff: 1959, 12f.). This milieu of morality made an important contribution to the importance of Art for Art’s Sake in Victorian times. In a permeable society with no fixed rules, such a movement would not have caught the attraction of the public and would therefore – if it had emerged at all – have disappeared very fast. Only in this environment the aesthetic writers were able to produce something interesting and the decadents were able to shock with their works. The reaction to these circumstances and the dealing with the loss of sense in life is characteristic of all literature of the 19th century. Some tried to criticise, some to improve, others created better worlds in literature or wanted to revive ancient or medieval times. The adherents of Art for Art’s Sake tried to completely turn their back on society, politics, morality and everything apart from art. They claimed a complete separation of art and life.

The movement found philosophical support in the system of Immanuel Kant. With his three Critiques, that of Pure Reason, of Practical Reason, and of Jugdement, he established the aesthetic capacity of man as an independent domain (Cf. Jenkins: 2003, 108). In other words, he “separated the sense of beauty from practical interests” (Baldick: 2004, 3).



[2] Cassagne, M. Le question de l’art pour l’art en France chez les derniers romantiques et les premiers réalistes. Paris : Dorbon, 1959

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