Friday, September 01, 2006

Aestheticism and Art for Art's Sake

Aestheticism designates a general tendency in English art and letters that was prominent from the 1870s to the end of the century. It is associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and the painter James Abbot McNeill Whistler. By common consent, the high priest of the trend was Walter Pater (1839-1894), an introverted, homoerotic Oxford don. Captivating readers with his almost hypnotic style, Pater’s interpretations of the Renaissance, including art, were influential. The famous evocation of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is iconic.

By 1881 the type had become familiar enough to be satirized by W. S. Gilbert in his musical comedy Patience. The trend reached triumph, and then tragedy in the meteoric career of Oscar Wilde, whose trials and conviction for gross indecency tarnished the whole tendency.

The guiding principle of aestheticism is nonutilitarian. In this light the pursuit of beauty is the main thing, a pursuit not to be sullied by the intrusion of irrelevant ethical, moral, or political issues. “Sing me a song without social significance,” might be their motto.

Still that is not quite right, for the followers of aestheticism asserted that in promoting the domestic side of their program--the “house beautiful"--they would ultimately improve the quality of everyone’s life. Fine fabrics, good wallpaper, and well-made furniture can do no harm.

In France Théophile Gautier vigorously promoted the slogan “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake) from about 1835 on. Ultimately the idea stems from a key distinction residing in the aesthetic theory of Immanuel Kant. The German philosopher held that one must distinguish between nonutilarian beauty, untrammeled by practical concerns, and dependent beauty. From this distinction many drew the lesson that the former is better.

The principle of art for art’s sake responded in large measure to the demand by artists and writers that their work be unfettered by the demands of church and state, two institutions seeking to maintain power by spreading their ideologies. Artists and writers must not be complicit in this enterprise, but always strive to maintain their independence. As the motto of the Vienna Sezession put it: “Der Zeit ihre Kunst/Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (to the age its art, to art its freedom).

Many have doubted whether, in the last analysis, such independence is truly possible. There are always the realities of class, gender, and the economy. Artists and writers strive to sell their works and this aim must influence the form of what they produce. Ironically, the slogan of “art for art’s sake” assisted this economic goal. “Why did Cézanne paint those apples blue?” The answer is “Don’t ask; that is part of his sovereign independence.” Trust the artist, and don't quibble. Do open your check book, though.

However that may be, the ideal of art for art’s sake contributed to the emergence of formalism as an analytic tool towards the end of the century, at the hands of Heinrich Wölfflin and others. And this approach, as we see from Vassily Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art, assisted the rise of abstraction.

REFERENCES. J. R. Chamberlin, Ripe Was the Drowsy Hour: The Age of Oscar Wilde, New York: Seabury Press, 1977; A. L. Guerard, Art for Art's Sake, New York, 1936.


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