Art for Art’s Sake

autotelic index


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 (educational), 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. A Latin version of this phrase, ‘Ars gratia artis,’ is used as a slogan by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and appears in its logo.

The popularization of the expression is credited to French poet, 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):

‘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.’

‘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 subversive.

In fact, American artist, James McNeill Whistler wrote the following in which he discarded the accustomed role of art in the service of the state or official religion: ‘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.’ Such a brusque dismissal also expressed the artist’s distancing himself 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 with Walter Pater and his followers in the Aesthetic Movement, which was self-consciously in rebellion against Victorian moralism. The philosophy is not without its critics. French novelist, 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. Senghor argues that ‘art is functional’ and that in black Africa, ‘art for art’s sake’ does not exist.’ The German Marxist essayist and critic 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.

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’). 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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