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Art for Art’s Sake in the New Century
A French history of the concept, Nietzsche’s stance, and artists of the Paleolithic
For as long as it has been articulated, the concept of “art for art’s sake” has been dismissed as degenerate and trivial. But is it obsolete? Ask the question of artists today and the response will most likely be equivocal; ask it within an arts institution and the answer will almost certainly be “Yes: dead and gone.”
That we are living through a period in which the mainstream attitude toward the arts is stridently utilitarian is undeniable. An artwork’s social, political, or moral function is seen to be its essence. The expectation that artworks instruct, that they generate audiences with commitments and produce results for the present, is widely operative. Critics bestow the words “relevant” and “urgent” on books, films, and exhibitions as the highest praise. One might consider the postponing of painter Philip Guston’s retrospective in 2020 by four world-class museums, on the basis of the artist’s own political beliefs not being made explicit enough in the show, as emblematic of the time. Earlier that year, chastised by a swath of the poetry community for being “unfit to respond to the crises of our times” (crises including the “genocide against Black people”), the Poetry Foundation solemnly apologized for its “institutional silence,” pushed out its president and board chairman, announced a five-step process to addressing its “debts to Black poets,” and pledged to redirect funds to a host of social justice efforts. Writers and artists today seeking private funding would be wise to frame their work as attending to issues such as inequality, incarceration, repair, activism, and the violence of U.S. imperialism, judging by those who were named 2021 MacArthur Foundation fellows.
The current priorities of arts institutions are signaled in part by their recent hires and the statements that accompany them. Leading art school RISD has selected for its new president the diversity, equity, and inclusion head of Boston University for her “deep commitment to leading change”: “Art, education, and equity and justice are the three foundational focuses of my life,” she said in the announcement. The Serpentine Gallery’s new director of curatorial affairs has pointed to the role of museums in “today’s imperative to attend to the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in society while dismantling white supremacy.” Two newly hired deputy directors at the Brooklyn Museum will further the institution’s “social-change efforts” and “develop a sustained, multiyear strategy to engage audiences around issues . . . including mass criminalization and climate change.” The museum also has a new president, who stated her commitments upon her appointment: “From a very young age I dreamed of leading a cultural institution, not only for my love of the arts but for the power of the arts to enact social change.” Curator of the 2023 Liverpool Biennial has been chosen on the basis of her “longstanding curatorial concerns around care and repair.” A recent profile in ARTnews of Elizabeth Alexander, head of the Mellon Foundation, says she has been “transforming . . . the nation’s largest funder of the arts and humanities, since she became president in 2018, by [in Alexander’s words] ‘doing all the work, every penny, through a social justice lens.’”
Our utilitarian era, as “change”-oriented as it is, must be historicized. Little about the imperatives newly governing the contemporary art and book worlds is new. The utilitarians are not so inventive. Throughout the 20th century in the democratic West, art movements driven by political and social messaging in pursuit of change have enjoyed widespread popularity among the public and, sooner or later, institutional backing. What was considered valuable about individual artworks was their ability to diagnose, address, and even remedy social ills. Leftist muralists and printmakers of the thirties and feminist performance artists of the seventies have their places in the history of art. Possibly what distinguishes the status of art today is the seeming rush by institutions to align themselves with the change-demanders. But even this phenomenon—whether driven by market forces, the sincere ethical commitments of provosts and executives, or something else—is far from historically unique. The Fireside poets (Longfellow, Bryant, Holmes, and Whittier) are near equivalents to the popular political poets of today, when one looks beyond their race and gender. Both then and now, these are poets acclaimed by institutions; their faces grace magazines; they teach at private universities. These are poems of the classroom—topical, moral, frequently (in the old and new definitions of the term) abolitionist.
How best to elucidate our time, to make clear the values that are obsolete and those that are alive? Which values should we claim and promote? Art for art’s sake appears to be a thoroughly neglected concept, bordering on the taboo. Yet the history of l’art pour l’art in France is not only fascinating but notably instructive. The origins and usage of the term by artists, critics, and intellectuals from the 1810s through to the 1860s are specific to the period. But the concept itself, I posit, is not historical or antiquated but has eternal life. We are subjects of our time: Consciousness, the self, social relations are all conditioned. We require concepts for understanding ourselves and the world—including the world of art—that are particular to now, whenever now is. The contours of art for art’s sake can and should be redrawn for the present. Engaging with the various adoptions and repudiations of l’art pour l’art in 19th-century France can help us in doing so.
Lovers of art in this century: There is every reason for you to espouse art for art’s sake.
Coming upon a reference to how Charles Baudelaire or Arthur Rimbaud spoke disparagingly of l’art pour l’art will naturally colour a person’s feelings about the term. After all, these are two of our most aesthetically important modern poets in the art form’s genealogy, whose writings were consequential not only for the generations of French writers that followed them but also for international Modernism in the 20th century. Were Baudelaire and Rimbaud wrong? A better question is, What exactly were they criticizing?
We must go back to before either was born. Artists associated with the Romantic movement in France dominated for the first five decades of the 19th century. (Any discussion of artistic movements or groups, rather than discussion of individual artists’ projects, can obscure more than it reveals. However, throughout the 19th century French artists, especially writers, often overtly associated themselves with various groups, so some generalizations are worth making.) Romanticism in music, painting, sculpture, and literature arose during the period of social turmoil following the French Revolution and in reaction to the previous era of Neoclassicism in the arts. Romantic artists shunned the Enlightenment ideals of reason and order; many of them glorified nature. More stringent definitions are not especially helpful, but it’s fair to say that by midcentury, literary Romanticism’s abandonment of fixed forms was coupled with an embrace of personal, emotional, and politically or morally minded subject matters. With the fall of the Bourbon Restoration in 1830 and the unrest it precipitated, some Romantic writers doubled down on their commitment to serving society: George Sand championed “proletarian” literature; poet Alphonse de Lamartine entered politics and helped found the Second Republic; Victor Hugo wrote novels, poems, and plays in defense of the poor and oppressed.
Amid this era of social Romanticism, the concept of l’art pour l’art takes off. The most ardent broadcaster of the term is Théophile Gautier—on the one hand a Romantic and anticlassical writer, on the other a public opposer of utilitarianism in art, who declares in the preface to an 1835 novel, “All that is useful is ugly.” L’art pour l’art has been circulating among French litterateurs for a couple of decades, since émigré writers Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant returned to France from Germany, bringing with them news from the German literary and philosophical scenes, including news about the latest aesthetic theories. A professor and one of de Staël’s readers, Victor Cousin visited some of those German thinkers, pored over an eclectic mix of philosophical works, and from 1818 started lecturing to huge audiences back in Paris on aesthetics and espousing l’art pour l’art: “We must have . . . art for art’s sake,” he told audiences at the Sorbonne. “The beautiful cannot be the way to what is useful, or to what is good, or to what is holy; it leads only to itself.”
By 1860 a new generation of writers—tired of Romantic lyric poetry’s preoccupation with emotional subjectivity, tired of sentimentality, and tired of the demand that literature serve society—come to align themselves with Gautier. The group calls itself le Parnasse, the Parnassians (after Mount Parnassus, home of the Muses in Greek mythology). Aesthetically, the Parnassians turn back to Neoclassicism; they embrace the strict old metrical forms over the lax prosody of Romantic verse. They write impersonal poems, precise as clear-cut gems, on the subject of beautiful things. And like Gautier, they present themselves as endorsers of art for art’s sake.
We come to see it is the Parnassians whom Baudelaire and Rimbaud disparage. In the Parnassian usage, the l’art pour l’art slogan has come to mean, on the one hand, an elevation of formal technique over content and, on the other, emotional vacancy. Neither Baudelaire nor Rimbaud has given his life over to poetry only to treat the art form as an arena for demonstrating skill. It is no mystery why both poets, committed as they are to the imagination, to the ecstasies and torments of the spirit, resist; why Baudelaire calls the art-for-art’s-sake school “sterile” and a “puerile utopia”; why Rimbaud can submit poems to the Parnassians at age fifteen and rail against them a year later in his lettres du voyant. To Rimbaud, the failure of contemporary verse is clear: “We require new ideas and forms of our poets.” Shunning the l’art pour l’art movement, in this period in France, is in no way equivalent to denying the autonomy of art.
Ah— but Baudelaire never insists on the separation of art from its social context, and Rimbaud is inspired by the Paris Commune, scholars will retort. This assertion confuses social criticism, rebellion against sexual mores, support for revolting workers, and attacks on bourgeois values with promotion of a political agenda. Neither poet in his literary works ever had anything close to an activist agenda. But such scholars also would have us think of both men as politico-aesthetic theorists first and poets second.
Deep in their ideologies, academics have long tried to explain away art for art’s sake in the period as a mistaken concept. Some, beholden to the more enervating strains of Marxist critique, have argued l’art pour l’art can be understood as market-driven, as though art is no different from journalism or factory parts. Still others have written off the Parnassian and Symbolist movements as forebears of Surrealism in their shunning of “real life”—in favour, presumably, of some other, fake sort of life. If this critique sounds resolutely utilitarian, that’s because it is. Today’s academics will tend to argue that art for art’s sake is nonviable because they are desperate to see their own work as socially responsible.
What both Baudelaire and Rimbaud do insist is that artists can take on anything as their subject matter. Today’s aesthete—the nonutilitarian lover of art—knows the significance of this imperative, without which Modernism will never go on to happen. No subject is off-limits to Baudelaire and Rimbaud! Their paying attention to marginalized figures does not make them political poets.
A crowd of people think that the goal of poetry is a kind of lesson, that it must fortify the conscience, perfect social mores, and ultimately demonstrate in some way or another its utility. Poetry, provided that one is willing to descend into oneself, interrogate one’s soul, recall one’s memories of enthusiasm, has no other goal than Itself. . . . I don’t mean that poetry doesn’t ennoble our mores—let me be understood—or that its final result is not to elevate humankind above the level of vulgar interests; that would be an evident absurdity. I mean that if the poet pursues a moral goal, it diminishes his poetic power; and it would not be imprudent to bet that his work will be bad. (“Théophile Gautier” in L’Artiste, 1859)
L’art pour l’art is free of the Parnassian baggage for other artists. As an expression of belief in the autonomy of art, and a refusal to value art on the basis of its political, religious, or moral utility, the concept appeals to stylistically diverse writers and painters. (Asserting his commitment to social justice, Hugo in 1864 makes the rather insipid statement, “Art for art’s sake can be beautiful, but art for progress is more beautiful.”) In the visual arts, the concept is adopted particularly by those who oppose the new Realist movement, itself a turn away from Romanticism. Novelist Émile Zola, writing in 1866, invokes art for art’s sake in celebration of Édouard Manet, who is helping usher in Impressionism, the great development in painting after Realism: “One must not judge him as a moralist or as a writer; one must judge him as a painter. . . . He knows neither how to sing nor how to philosophize. He knows how to paint, and that’s it.” No moralizing veil overlays Manet’s images, which are not allegorical or drawn from history. Manet paints scenes from his social environment, but not as a documentarian. He cares about the image, the experience of beholding the image, and the paint.
A close friend of Manet’s, poet Stéphane Mallarmé comes to be closely associated with le symbolisme, France’s late 19th-century Symbolist movement. In 1891 Mallarmé will describe Symbolism’s departure from other poetic modes: The Parnassians disappoint because their poems “lack mystery; they steal from readers’ minds the delicious joy of believing that they create.” With Mallarmé, the “art for art’s sake” concept becomes articulated in the ideal of “pure” art, l’oeuvre pure. For him there are two types of language—that of “elementary discourse,” which is descriptive, utilitarian, and brute; and that of poetry, “which is primarily dream and song” and is essential.
“But this ‘art for art’s sake’ business did not spontaneously begin with the French,” philosophically minded critics will insist. In tracing the concept’s history, we are not helped by those thinkers who construe every noteworthy idea from 1800 onward as a bastardization of something first expressed by Immanuel Kant. Exactly how many paintings did he see in Königsberg before forming his theory of aesthetic judgment? In their visits to Germany, de Staël, Constant, and Cousin had become acquainted with aspects of Kant’s aesthetic theories, as well as those of philosophers Schiller and Schelling. This fact aside, it does not follow that any culture’s or individual’s appreciation of art necessarily owes much at all to these thinkers. Try as the art lover might, she will find Kant’s writings of little help when developing her own aesthetic sensibility. In the first place, Kant proposes in his 1790 Critique of Judgment an analysis of aesthetic judgment that is concerned not with art but instead with beauty. But we go on. For Kant, aesthetic judgments are unlike other judgments—say, about what things one likes or about what is morally good—in that aesthetic judgments are “disinterested,” meaning they are “merely contemplative” and “indifferent to the existence of the object.” The kind of pleasure one takes in beautiful things depends on the harmonious play of one’s imagination and understanding. And while beautiful things do not serve any presupposed purpose—that is, they do not serve as means to any ends—still they have the quality of “formal purposiveness.”
Why are not aesthetes drawn to unifying theories of art? you may wonder. Building on his assertion that beauty is “purposive without a purpose,” Kant goes on to relate how beautiful things are, indeed, “purposive in reference to the moral feeling.” So while it’s true that one’s aesthetic judgments are disinterested, so too is it true that engaging with art makes one grow as a moral and social being. From there, Kant goes on to argue in his closing passages for the binding together of beauty and ethics. For the individual, art—he tells us—civilizes. This dubious idea is totally alive among artists and audiences today. We hear it expressed by those novelists and filmmakers who will plainly state that their intention is to improve and educate their readers and viewers.
I hope a short, two-part retort will suffice. For Kant the faculties involved in aesthetic judgment are imagination and understanding—and not, specifically, the faculty of cognition. Whereas for the aesthete, or really anyone capable of being affected by an artwork, responding to art involves a whole range of attentivenesses, all working in combination: the spiritual, emotional, psychological, sensual, and intellectual.
Second, the person who cares about art, who has no doubt that experiences of art have made her life more worthwhile, in an instinctual way understands aesthetics not as a series of principles she holds but as an activity she carries out. It is by aesthetics that she lives her life. In comparison to her are those who don’t care about art, whose lives have not been enriched by artworks, and for whom aesthetics might at best be something of a philosophical posture.
Regrettably, writing in the early 20th century, Walter Benjamin misrepresented the Baudelairean figure, the modern flâneur, as one alienated by modern life. Sociologists from midcentury to the present have similarly argued that art for art’s sake reflects the alienation of the artist in bourgeois society. Baudelaire, however, wrote of the modern artist in no such way. His flâneur is explicitly not a dandy—not indifferent, not an idle wanderer—but “ruled by an insatiable passion.” His is more accurately a Nietzschean figure, a passionate lover of life.
Nietzsche himself, writing in 1888, took issue with the idea of l’art pour l’art, and in the process advanced what might be considered a different but related concept, what we might term “art for life’s sake.” In Nietzsche’s words:
The struggle against purpose in art is always a struggle against the moralizing tendency in art, against the subordination of art to morality. L’art pour l’art means: “the devil take morality!” — But this very hostility betrays that moral prejudice is still dominant. When one has excluded from art the purpose of moral preaching and human improvement it by no means follows that art is completely purposeless, goalless, meaningless. . . . Art is the great stimulus to life: how could it be thought purposeless, aimless, l’art pour l’art? (Twilight of the Idols)
I adore the vigour of Nietzsche’s statement—again, what might be expressed as “art for life’s sake.” I struggle to challenge or correct it. That art is the great stimulus to life, its great validator—that the appreciation of art gives purpose and value to life—is a tenet absolutely held by art lovers.
It is not my project here to offer a full definition of “life” in Nietzsche’s terms. Certainly Nietzsche was concerned with how we live, how our minds and days are shaped for and by us. For the aesthete’s purposes, “life” in “art for life’s sake” need not be abstract but can instead refer to the finite and brief life of the individual art lover. For her, deriving meaning from artworks involves hours upon hours of attention and the slow cultivation of taste, art-historical knowledge, and an aesthetic sensibility.
And yet: What “art for life’s sake” does not encapsulate is, for the aesthete, the singularly important fact of art’s autonomy. Art—for the art lover, and intrinsic to her appreciation of artworks—has its own life, an inorganic vitality. The life of art is entwined with but separable from the life of humankind. Art’s genealogy, stretching back through the centuries and millennia, is alive at every point, along every line of descendance. Older art does not “live on” in what succeeds it, but lives; its insights are obtainable always. Unlike individuals and institutions, species and social systems, great art never dies, dissolves, or goes extinct. Long after the artist and his way of being in the world are gone, great art remains.
Ultimately, the aesthete appreciates great artworks not only because of what they do for her but because of what they are, and what they have made—or will make—possible for the future of their artistic medium. Recognition of this fact makes the “art for art’s sake” formulation necessarily true for the present.
Finally, I do have a small disagreement with Nietzsche on the purported “hostility” of l’art pour l’art. The inaccuracy of this claim—that the concept betrays itself as a reaction against “moral prejudice . . . still dominant”—is easier to see from the vantage point of the early 21st century, and can be shown by reflecting, briefly, on the deep history of art.
Simply stated, for those artists who believe in the autonomy of art, their creations do not need or seek any external justification. The “art for art’s sake” expression is, in one language or another, most likely a few centuries old. But the foundational concept under consideration—that of appreciating or making art for its own sake—is every bit as old as the first artworks, which is to say, far older than society and its groupings, certainly older than the self (a later invention). A simple desire courses through the blood of our species: to make, to make things other than tools, and not just because particular problems need to be solved but because it is in our nature to make. Possibly all hominins shared with us this drive.
Neanderthals, we’re learning, made some of the oldest known cave paintings. A zigzag pattern scratched with a shark tooth into a mussel shell around five hundred thousand years ago, which experts disagree on whether to consider the earliest example of art, was made by someone of the homo erectus species, an ancestor to Neanderthals and us both. As long as three million years ago, our prehuman ancestors were collecting stones, minerals, shells, and fossils for their visual and tactile qualities, for their weight, colours, and shapes. Early humans, unfulfilled by nature’s pleasing objects, later began working nature’s products through sculpture and marking for nonutilitarian purposes. Cupules, indentations made in rock by pecking, would evolve from the first artists’ gestures into abstract forms, then on to the earliest figurative engravings. Incidental marks found on animal bones became the basis of carved geometric patterns.
The archaeological record shows how gradually across the planet, over hundreds of millennia, artistic phenomena emerged, withdrew, spread, and developed. By the Upper Paleolithic, humans were creating figurative art objects and cave paintings, works often of overwhelming majesty and naturalism that demonstrate irrefutably the refinement of those artists. What symbolic or mystical significance art held for Paleolithic people can only be guessed at, but we do know that their spiritual concerns were independent of their need for survival.
From early in the life of the species, the human imagination, our spirit, has found expression in aesthetic and symbolic gestures. Because of this deep history of ours, the “art for art’s sake” concept always will be best understood not as reactive—in rejecting this or that political, social, or moral dictate—but as active: generative, innate, spirit-affirming. It is the original value system of art.