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Art for Art's Sake

Art for Art's Sake Collage
Started: 1820
Art for art's sake means for ... the pursuit of beauty - without any other preoccupation.

Summary of Art for Art's Sake

The phrase 'art for art's sake' (from the French l'art pour l'art) condenses the notion that art has its own value and should be judged apart from any themes which it might touch on, such as morality, religion, history, or politics. It teaches that judgements of aesthetic value should not be confused with those proper to other spheres of life. The idea has ancient roots, but the phrase first emerged as a rallying cry in 19th-century France, and subsequently became central to the British Aesthetic movement. Although the phrase has been little used since, its legacy has been at the heart of 20th century ideas about the autonomy of art, and thus crucial to such different bodies of thought as those of formalism, modernism, and the avant-garde. Today, deployed more loosely and casually, it is sometimes put to very different ends, to defend the right of free expression, or to appeal for art to uphold tradition and avoid causing offense.

Overview of Art for Art's Sake

Art for Art's Sake Image

While some demanded that art only focus on aethetics (and be devoid of morality and the like), others, such as the famous writer George Sand said: "Talent imposes duties. Art for the truth, art for the good, art for the beautiful - that is the religion I seek."

The Important Artists and Works of Art for Art's Sake

James Abbott McNeill Whistler: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874)

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874)

Artist: James Abbott McNeill Whistler

The American-born painter James Whistler was a central figure in Britain's late 19th-century Aesthetic movement, which made 'art for art's sake' its rallying cry. Color and mood were crucial to his art, his paintings often bordering on abstraction. His titles, like that for Nocturne in Black and Gold, often emphasized these formal qualities, over and above the ostensible subject of the picture, which in this case is a fireworks display on the River Thames in London. His titles also often borrowed musical terms such as 'nocturne' and 'harmony', thereby insisting on painting's relationship to the arts in general, rather than its relationship to the outside world. When he exhibited Nocturne at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, the critic John Ruskin accused him of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler famously responded by suing Ruskin for libel, and though he won the case, he was awarded only a tiny amount in damages, and the huge costs he incurred later led to his bankruptcy.

Marcel Duchamp: Fountain (1917)

Fountain (1917)

Artist: Marcel Duchamp

Duchamp's Fountain staged the 20th century's most powerful attack on the notion that art can be judged separately from other spheres of life. Duchamp did not create the work so much as chose it, purchasing a conventional urinal and signing it with a pseudonym, R. Mutt. Submitted to the 1917 Society for Independent Artists, the object should have been included without debate in the Society's annual exhibition, since membership alone entailed the right to exhibit. But Fountain was rejected on the grounds of immorality, proving that, despite assumptions to the contrary, other value judgements - such as, in this case, morality - did indeed inform aesthetic judgement. Curiously, however, Fountain's supporters did employ a version of the notion of 'art for art's sake' to defend the object, arguing that Duchamp's choice of the object imbued it with special significance, hence making it eligible for consideration as art and putting it beyond the bounds of complaints about morality. So if the affair demonstrates the beginning of the end of 'art for art's sake' in the 20th century, it also shows its strange tenacity.

Vladimir Tatlin: Selection of Materials: Iron, Stucco, Glass, Asphalt (1914)

Selection of Materials: Iron, Stucco, Glass, Asphalt (1914)

Artist: Vladimir Tatlin

Vladimir Tatlin was powerfully influenced by the reliefs he saw in Picasso's studio in Paris when he visited in 1913-14. But upon his return to Russia he began to put the lessons of Cubist collage to very new uses, devising early Constructivist collages such as Selection of Materials. It deserves to be called Constructivist (i.e. a 'construction', not a 'composition') because, as contemporary critic Nikolai Tarabukin put it, "the material dictates the form, and not the opposite." The doctrine of 'art for art's sake' laid great emphasis on form and composition, and in that sense Tatlin opposed it, favoring instead an art that might act as a laboratory for the development of designs for everyday life. And indeed, eventually, this experimental period of Russian Constructivism gave way to one in which artists went to work designing objects such as packaging and advertising for the new Communist authorities - a far cry from 'art for art's sake.'

More Important Art

Useful Resources on Art for Art's Sake


Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Art for Art's Sake Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 01 Jul 2009. Updated and modified regularly
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