The art world paradigm of art for art’s sake was inseparable from the birth of modern art. Purpose and narrative in art gave way to expressions of inner emotions, experimentation with materials and abstraction. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that it was accompanied by a conscious attack on classical art by artists and writers.
The modern expression of “art for art’s sake” emerged in the early 19th century France as “l’art pour l’art.” French writers and art critics, including Theophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, and Stéphane Mallarmé championed l’art pour l’art as an antidote to classical traditions in art, which they perceived as obstacles to unfettered artistic expression. The work of these French writers created the space within which later movements, including the Symbolists and Decadents, could exist. These, in turn, inspired movements, such as Cubism and Surrealism. One can follow the thread of art for art’s sake’s influence through to contemporary art. And make no mistake about it, the rebellion was explicit. The Decadents, for example, supported human creativity over logic and thought art should oppose nature and “natural” norms of morality.
After originating in France, art for art’s sake became a central concept of the British Aesthetic Movement. In England, artists and writers, such as Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne and James McNeill Whistler advocated for it. The basic idea of the Aesthetic movement was that art needed to be beautiful and nothing else.
Whistler provided an explicit statement reflecting his art for art’s sake views. He said, “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. All these have no kind of concern with it…”
I don’t intend to get into the details of the philosophical perspectives of these different artists or movements here. I believe it is clear from just the brief history that I have presented above that “art for art’s sake” is itself a contradiction. Writers and artists advocating for art for art’s sake had a purpose. Their art had a purpose. That purpose was to fight the moralizing, bourgeoisification and rigidity of society prevalent in post-Napoleonic Europe and Victorian England. One of their key targets was classical academic art, which they saw as complicit in perpetuating these social problems. They felt the trajectory art had been on since the Renaissance had to be destroyed. To do this, they unleashed the concept of art for art’s sake and it spread like a virus.
The result of all this is that here we are, a century and a half later, standing in front of art we don’t understand and that has no purpose.
For those of us who are unhappy with the current state of the art world, there is no reason we should accept it. Just like the writers and artists who fought against classical academic art in the 19th century, we must fight against the art for art’s sake paradigm now if we want to see things change.
When classical perspectives like Schiller’s were trampled by artists and writers in the 19th century, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. The classical perspectives of Schiller, Goethe and others, even though they were associated with academic traditions, had great value and deserve another look. This does not mean we need to go backward. Instead, we need a synthesis—a new synthesis—combining the advances art has made over the last 150 years with a new perspective for art that has purpose at its heart. This new synthesis will take us forward.
The world is facing problems today that are arguably worse than what artists in the 19th century faced. It is time to think about what needs to happen for the art world to welcome artists who create with purpose in mind—artists who have something to say about where humanity should be going. Artists and writers in the 19th century fought to change the status quo and won. What can we do? The answer may be really simple. We do what they did—create art and talk to each other.
We have far better communications tools than 19th-century artists had. If we want to change the status quo, we need to use these tools to convince growing numbers of artists to produce art with a purpose, urge more patrons and collectors to support art of this sort through socialization and purchases, and encourage more galleries and museums to welcome the new art.
Introducing a new artistic paradigm into the vast complexities of the modern art world may seem like trying to move a mountain with a toothpick at first, but we have to start somewhere. Artists have a key role to play in the global discussion about the future well-being of humanity. It is time for art for our sake.
—Chris Sloan, Feb. 28, 2019