"L'art pour l'art" (translated as "art for art's sake") is credited to Théophile Gautier (1811–1872). Some argue Gautier was not the first to write those words. They appear in the works of Victor Cousin, Benjamin Constant, and Edgar Allan Poe. Poe argues in his essay "The Poetic Principle", that
Gautier, however, was the first to adopt the phrase as a slogan. "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, 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 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 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 "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."
The German Marxist essayist and critic Walter Benjamin, goes perhaps further in stating that the slogan is "consummated" in fascism, in the closing paragraph of his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.