he notion of art for art's sake, which originated in the rather more elegant French phrase L'Art pour L'Art, has more to do with advertising and political slogans than with aesthetic and critical theory. Although the slogan states "art for art's sake," in practice it usually meant that art should avoid social, political, and moral themes and concentrate instead on creating beauty, so it really meant "art for the sake of beauty and its elevating effects." Moreover, since many of those associated with Aestheticism, including Burne-Jones, Morris, Webb, deMorgan, and others, played important roles in the Arts and Crafts Movement, they intended their work to create beautiful total environments, and so their work had a social and even political agenda, which involved changing the way people lived and their attitude towards artisans.
M. H. Abrams provides the context that enables us to undertstand how this rather bizarre, fuzzy concept derived from the much serious and carefully thought out ideas of Kant. Placing the idea in the context of earlier theories of art and literature, Abrams points out that by the end of the eighteenth century "some critics were undertaking to explore the concept of a poem as a heterocosm, a world of its own, independent of the world into which we are born, whose end is not to instruct or please but simply to exist" (27). Drawing on the anti-utilitarian theories of art of Kant, Ruskin, and a range of writers on the subject that beauty is disinterested and has no crude utility, some critics,
particularly in Germany, were expanding upon Kant's formula that a work of art exhibits Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck (purposiveness without purpose), together with his concept that the contemplation of beauty is disinterested wthout regard to utility, while ignoring Kant's characteristic reference" of works of art and literature to both artist and audience. This "aim to consider a poem, as Poe expressed it, as a 'poem per se . . . written solely for the poem's sake,' in isolation from external causes and ulterior ends, came to constitute one element of the diverse doctrines usually huddled together by historians under the heading 'Art for Art's Sake.'" In a wonderful bit of irony unnoticed by most who relate the history of Aestheticism, Ruskin, whom most commentators take to be the bête noir of the movement, turns out to have advanced a complex theological argument for Art for Art's Sake before mid-century! As I show elsewhere on this site, Ruskin had a far more complex relation to Aestheticism than the by-now standard mentions of him suggest. We know he did much to advance the career of the most influential artist associated with Aestheticism, the painter, illustrator, stained-glass and mosaic designer, Burne-Jones, but who would have expected this very earnest Victorian sage to have provided an early justification for it?
Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. NY: Oxford UP, 1953.
Dowling, Linda. "Aestheticism." Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. 4 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. I, 32-37.
Sartwell, Crispin. "Art for Art's Sake." Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. 4 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. I, 118-20.
Last modified 5 December 2012