Definitions

for pity's sake!

Art for art's sake

"Art for art's sake" is the usual English rendition 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.

"Ars gratia artis", is used as a slogan by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and appears in the oval around the roaring head of Leo the Lion in their motion picture logo.

History

"L'art pour l'art" (translated as "art for art's sake") is credited to Théophile Gautier (18111872). 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

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.

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:

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 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.

Criticisms

Artists 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."

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.

Notes

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