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"Art for art's sake" is the usual English rendering of a French slogan from the early 19th century, ''l'art pour l'art'', and expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only "true" art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function. Such works are sometimes described as "autotelic", from the Greek autoteles, “complete in itself”, a concept that has been expanded to embrace "inner-directed" or "self-motivated" human beings.
Ironically, the term is sometimes used commercially. A Latin version of this phrase, "Ars gratia artis", is used as a motto by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and appears in the circle around the roaring head of Leo the Lion in its motion picture logo.
"L'art pour l'art" (translated as "art for art's sake") is credited to Théophile Gautier (1811–1872), who was the first to adopt the phrase as a slogan. Gautier was not, however, the first to write those words: they appear in the works of Victor Cousin, Benjamin Constant, and Edgar Allan Poe. For example, Poe argues in his essay "The Poetic Principle" (1850), that
"Art for art's sake" was a bohemian creed in the nineteenth century, a slogan raised in defiance of those who — from John Ruskin to the much later Communist advocates of socialist realism — thought that the value of art was to serve some moral or didactic purpose. "Art for art's sake" affirmed that art was valuable as art, that artistic pursuits were their own justification and that art did not need moral justification — and indeed, was allowed to be morally neutral or subversive.
In fact, James McNeill Whistler wrote the following in which he discarded the accustomed role of art in the service of the state or official religion, which had adhered to its practice since the Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century:
Such a brusque dismissal also expressed the artist's distancing him- or herself from sentimentalism. All that remains of Romanticism in this statement is the reliance on the artist's own eye and sensibility as the arbiter.
The explicit slogan is associated in the history of English art and letters with 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 Germany, the poet Stefan George was one of the first artists to translate the phrase ("kunst für die kunst") and adopt it for his own literary programme which he presented in the first volume of his literary magazine Blätter für die Kunst (1892). He was inspired mainly by Charles Baudelaire and the French Symbolists whom he had met in Paris, where he was friends with Albert Saint-Paul and consorted with the circle around Stéphane Mallarmé.
George Sand wrote in 1872 that L'art pour l'art was an empty phrase, an idle sentence. She asserted that artists had a "duty to find an adequate expression to convey it to as many souls as possible", ensuring that their works were accessible enough to be appreciated.
Contemporary postcolonial African writers such as Leopold Senghor and Chinua Achebe have criticised the slogan as being a limited and Eurocentric view on art and creation. In "Black African Aesthetics", Senghor argues that "art is functional" and that "in black Africa, 'art for art's sake' does not exist." Achebe is more scathing in his collection of essays and criticism entitled Morning Yet on Creation Day, where he asserts that "art for art's sake is just another piece of deodorised dog shit" (sic).
Walter Benjamin discusses the slogan in his seminal 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". He first mentions it in regard to the reaction within the realm of traditional art to innovations in reproduction, in particular photography. He even terms the "L'art pour l'art" slogan as part of a "theology of art" in bracketing off social aspects. In the Epilogue to the essay Benjamin discusses the links between fascism and art. His main example is that of Futurism and the thinking of its mentor Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. One of the slogans of the fascist Futurists was "Fiat ars - pereat mundus" ("Let art be created. Let the world perish"). Provocatively, Benjamin concludes that as long as fascism expects war "to supply the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology", then this is the "consummation", the realization, of "L'art pour l'art".
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