Art for Art’s Sake

In the early nineteenth century, French philosopher Victor Cousin coined a French slogan “l’art pour l’art”, which has the English meaning ‘Art for art’s sake’.  Although writer Théophile Gautier did not use the exact words, he wrote in the preface of his novel ‘Mademoiselle de Maupin’ of 1835, the idea that art should be valued as art only. The artistic pursuits should have their own justification. This slogan became a bohemian slogan later on.

What is art for art’s sake movement in 19th Century?

The concept that art does not need any clarification or justification, that it does not need to serve any purpose, and that the beauty of the art itself is sensible enough for pursuing them was highly adopted by leading British and French writers and artists such as Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This group of artist pioneered a rebellious movement against Victorian moralism which is known as the Aesthetic Movement.

English Aesthetic Movement

The slogan ‘art for art’s sake’ is associated with this movement in history, which advocated that art should be kept separated from any social, political and economic influence. Famous Poet Edgar Allan Poe mentioned in his essay a very similar argument, ‘this poem written only for the poem’s sake’.

The slogan appeared in two works published simultaneously in 1868, one was in Pater’s review of William Morris’s Westminster Review and other in the Algernon Charles Swinburne’s William Blake. Walter pater mentioned in his most influential text of the Aesthetic Movement ‘Studies in the History of the Renaissance’ in 1873.

The writers and artists of the Aesthetic Movement advocated that there was no connection between morality and art. The art should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey a sentimental or moral message. The art should only show what the artist wants to show from the beauty of art.

Art and the Industrial Revolution

The slogan ‘art for art’s sake’ was a European social construct. It was largely a product of the Industrial Revolution. In most of the cultures from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, the artistic image was a religious practice. In medieval Europe, art was primarily used to decorate religious places and churches. Later the rise of the middle class initiated a demand for the ornamental art, portraits, illustrations, paintings, and landscapes for their home and offices. However, the industrial revolution created a void in the social structure where a large number of people had to leave in urban slums. This change of equation raised the question for the traditional value of the art and rejected romanticism.

During the same time, the academic painters felt a responsibility to improve society by presenting art, paint or images that reflect conservative moral values, such as Christian sentiments or virtuous behavior. However, the modernists rebelled against this thought and demanded the freedom to choose the style and subject of the art themselves. They felt that the religious and political institutions were influencing the artist’s work area and restricting individual artist’s liberty.

These progressive modernists challenged the conservative middle-class’s demand for art and adopted an antagonist attitude to stand at the forefront of the modern age of art and culture.

The slogan is used commercially as well. The Latin meaning of the slogan ‘Art for art’s sake’ is “ARS GRATIA ARTIS’. This phrase is used by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, majorly known as MGM’s logo. The phrase is used as motto which appears in the logo of MGM behind the head of Leo the Lion.

MGM Logo
MGM Logo

Post-Modernism and Art for Art’s Sake

A failure of tradition was signified in the First World War and demonstrated that technological and scientific progress would not create a better world alone. This created a new cultural movement ‘Dadaism’ which declared that modernist art had rejected all prevailing artistic standard by imposing anti-art cultural work.

The concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ remained significant in a discussion about the importance of art and censorship. Art increasingly became a part of public life, in the form of film media, print media, and advertising.  Later the art became a mechanical rather than manual art and lost the control of an individual artist.

However, as the modern era emerged, Art falls in the hands of civic institutions and government bodies. This institutions which have no ability to appreciate art themselves impose restrictions on artistic expression and limited the individual’s liberty to create the art to show the beauty of the art itself. In today’s world, the slogan becomes significant again where the art should be for art’s sake only.

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