Art for Art’s Sake

What was the purpose of art in the modern period? In the minds of late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century philosophers, the role of art could be nothing less that to create beauty. The beautiful, for Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), is “that which without any concept is cognized as the object of necessary satisfaction.”  In other words, the appropriate stance of the spectator, perceiving “beauty” is one of indifference. This indifference does not imply, as it would in the contemporary sense today, that one is uninvolved;  it simply means acknowledging that the beauty possessed by the object is necessary and that the agreement as to the beauty would be universal. Paradoxically, taste is always ordered upon the indifferent, but this indifference is also the key to the recognition of the universality of beauty. The status of aesthetic judgment is not empirical but logical, based upon the powers of human reason and rationality, which excludes internal and external purposiveness or “interest.” Kant introduces purposiveness without a purpose, allowing the mind of the one who contemplates art freely thanks to an unrestricted play of the mental faculties. But what, then was the role of the artist, who was supposed to provide this play of the mental faculties?

Obviously an object dignified as “beautiful” was rare and exalted, worthy of universal agreement as to its necessary quality. As Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment, “For judging of beautiful objects as such, taste is requisite; but for beautiful art, i.e. for the production of such objects genius is requisite.” In a very famous statement, he asserted that “Genius is the talent (or natural gift) which gives the rule to art. Since talent, as the innate productive faculty of the artist, belongs itself to nature, we may express the matter thus: Genius is the innate mental disposition (ingenium) through which nature gives rule to art.” Kant completely understood the existence of academic art or “mechanical art,” as he termed it, which was ” a mere art of industry” and he separated the merely trained and skilled artist from the “genius.” “Genius,” he said, “can only furnish rich material for products of beautiful art; its execution and its form require talent cultivated in the schools, in order to make use of this material as will stand examination by the judgment.” Kant also insisted that the “mental powers” that constituted genius were “imagination and understanding,” asserting that “no science can teach and no industry can learn..” In other words, while the imagination must “submit” to understanding, working hard and being industrious is insufficient to produce a work of genius. Genius, Kant seemed to imply, is natural, in that it is a gift from nature fused with training. The idea of “genius” was novel one, which he set on in the section “Analytic of the Sublime,” easily the most significant section of the book.

Kant’s rather difficult book on aesthetics entered into French thought through a variety of paths, all of which greatly simplified his ideas. The phrase “art for art’s sake” is thought to have been coined by Benjamin Constant, a Swiss philosopher, a prodigy who was educated in Germany, where he learned German, before he completed his education in Scotland. Multilingual and a distinguished philosopher in his own right, Constant had the intellectual weight and temerity to cross literary swords with Kant himself on the question of lying and truth. Their discussion, taking place with the French Revolution as a backdrop, had nothing to do with art and everything to do with politics, moral positions and a just society. Oddly, this exchange between the two philosophers, one old and defensive, one young and up and coming seems to have rested upon words not written. As Slavoj Žižek wrote in Cogito and the Unconscious: Sic 2, that the German translation of Des réactions politiques (1797), the book that began the debate, was translated by Franz Cramer who added additional information: “In the German translation, the passage where Constant speaks of a ‘German philosopher’ is accompanied by a footnote in which the publisher states that Constant told him that the ‘German philosopher’ he had in mind was Kant. What is especially interesting about this case is that philosopher states that, in the work of Kant, we do not find the example to which Constant refers. However, Kant immediately replied to Constant with “On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philosophical Concerns.” After quoting Constant.., Kant adds a footnote saying he remembers stating somewhere what Constant suggests, but that he does not remember where.”

Constant, compared to Kant, led an active and adventurous life, observing the French Revolution at close hand and enjoying the company of numerous women, most famously Madame Germaine de Staël with whom he had an unacknowledged daughter. He knew Charles-Maurice de Tallyrand (the rumored father of Delacroix), was acquainted with William Godwin, the companion of Mary Woolstonecroft, and, according to his biographer Dennis Wood, he was a guest for dinner “at the home of the widow of the philosophe Condorcet..” and “General Laclos, that is Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos Laclos, the author of Les Liaisons dangereuses.”  The formidable intellectual couple, on and off again in their relationships, moved in the highest literary and philosophical circles in France, but that did not protect them from the wrath of Napoléon for their dual distrust of tyranny. The new ruler of France promptly expelled Madame de Staël and Constant prudently followed her to exile in Germany. With their affair long since cooled, Constant seems to have planned to leave her once she found safety but the couple arrived in Weimar where the philosopher found himself at home once again. As Wood recounted, the new exile found himself in “an atmosphere of intellectual freedom  that had disappeared in France.” “Constant was in his second homeland once again, surrounded by erudition and unflagging intellectual curiosity, his morale boosted by the familiar German atmosphere of unprejudiced tolerance and enlightened attitudes.” Constant met with the major thinkers of the early nineteenth century, Göethe, Schiller, Wieland, and it is during these discussions in Weimar that the phrase “art for art’s sake” emerged, an event that Wood does not discuss but is discussed at great length by Frederick Burwick in Mimesis and Its Romantic Reflections. An Englishman, Henry Crabb Robinson, was studying in Germany and had met with the great Romantic thinkers, Göethe, Schiller, Herder, and studied under Schelling.

In 1804 he met Constant and de Staël in Weimar and the two men had a conversation–recorded by both in their journals–on aesthetics. Constant had a conversation with Schiller where he contrasted French poetry to German poetry and he and Robinson seem to have conversed about the idea of art for art’s sake. It seems that Robinson had heard what Constant termed “very clever notions” or “idées très énergiques” from Schelling who had taken Kant’s Ding an sich and posited Kunst an sich, which Robinson, speaking French, translated as l’art pour l’art or perhaps it was Constant who did the translation–certain details are lost. In 1921 Rose Frances Egan quoted the precise passage from Constant’s notes: “J’ai la visite de Schiller…J’ai une conversation avec Robinson, élève de Schelling. Son travail sur l’Esthétique de Kant a des idées très energiques. L’art pour l’art, sans but, car tout but dénature l’art. Mais l’art atteint un but qu’il n’a pas.” Egan also noted that in the journals of Henry Crabb Robinson, dated even earlier in 1801, he wrote of a visit with Winckelmann, who analyzed the excellence of English writers and yet noted that they were “incapable of attaining the highest degree of excellence. A pure poet has no other end than to produce a work of art, a pure philosopher, no other end than to raise a system of elaborate truth.” 

The tale of the dissemination of the now famous phrase and the seminal concept remains confused. Burwick determined that the concept but not the phrase found its way from Constant to de Staël in her famous book of 1810, De l’Allemagne, and Gene H. Bell-Villada, in Art for Art’s Sake & Literary LifeHow Politics and Markets Helped Shape the Ideology & Culture of Aestheticism, 1790-1990, suggested that her knowledge of Kantian aesthetics was secondhand, gleaned from conversations. However, her book was widely read in France and it was from her writings that the ideas of Kant, Schiller, and the Schlegels arrived in France. Bell-Villada wrote that the French readership was “largely bored with the ‘rules’ of neo-classicism and was in a mood to seek out alternate literary ways.” It seems that few of Kant’s admirers in France had actually read Critique of Judgment and the next intellectual to notice the usefulness of his ideas that freed artists from “tyrannical restrictions,” as de Staël expressed it, was Victor Cousin. Cousin was the right man in France at the right time. As was pointed out, the artists were already bored with the frozen style of Neoclassicism and, as Gene H. Bell-Villada reported, “In post-Napoléonic France the philosophical field was in a sorry state..” and Cousin stepped “into this vacuum.” At the Sorbonne “Professor Cousin..gave a series of lectures based on his minimal reading of Kant–mainly in poor and incomplete Latin translations, deciphered with much clever guesswork on his part.” Even more remarkable, for today’s rigorous scholars, Cousin wrote a book, composed of simplified ideas and catch phrases gleaned from a hodge-podge of German philosophy. Cours de philsophie professée à la faculté des lettres pendant l’année 1818 sure les fondements des idées absolues du vrai, du beau et du bien, in which he said, “Il faut de la religion pour la religion de la morale pour la morale, comme de l’art pour l’art.”

In her 1921 book tracing the origin and increasing popularity of the phrase, Rose Frances Egan, pointed to Victor Hugo who was apparently familiar with the words to use them in a casual fashion,as though the idea of art having no purpose other than its own were an accepted thought: “Plutôt cent fois l’art pour l’art! Cette parole, détournée, involontairement sans doute, de son vrai sens pour les besoins de la polemique, a pris plus tard, à la grande surprise de celui dont elle avait été l’interjection, les proportions d’une formule.” These sentences appeared in Hugo’s 1864 Shakespeare, indicating the idea was accepted and widely known. The battle cry against classicism was “art for art’s sake” and, ironically, given that Kant based his aesthetic ideas of beauty upon classicism, the reinterpretations of his work undermined the very notion of universal beauty. As would be seen in the art of Gustave Courbet, artistic freedom opened the door to an expression of the ugly and allowed the ordinary into the precincts of art. The new mood of romantic individualism became a movement among artists and writers in both France and Germany–Romanticism. Théophile Gautier wrote that “Art for art’s sake means for its adepts the pursuit of pure beauty — without any other preoccupation.”

In her book, The Genesis of the Theory of “Art for Art’s Sake” in Germany and in England, Egan who is rarely mentioned by later historians, thought that perhaps, since Robinson was writing in 1845, he was writing from memory, that one should  look to Thackery for the earliest use of the phrase in English. In 1839, writing to his mother, the author remarked, “Please God we shall begin again ere long, to love art for art’s sake.” Based on these widespread accounts covering three languages, the idea that art had its own destiny was both attractive and probably necessary. Within the Romantic movement, artists were believed to have the right to exist for the sole purpose of making art and art supposedly existed for the sole purpose of being art.  Art for art’s sake is such a powerful (and necessary) concept, so pervasive and entrenched that it is one of the most important motivating forces behind art to this day.  the artist and the work of art now had a purpose again—not a social purpose but a purpose that was strictly an art purpose.  Confronting the staid and serious Neoclassic was its rival “ism,” Romanticism, which championed the artist as a genius and art as an expression of that genius—concepts that were pure Kant.

Although “Art for art’s sake” is a particular concept developed within the branch of philosophy called Aesthetics, these terms: “art for art’s sake,”  “aestheticism” and “aesthetics” are not interchangeable.  Also not to be confused with Kantian aesthetic theory is Aestheticism, which was an artistic movement in late nineteenth-century England. English Aestheticism was an attitude on the part of art makers and art appreciators, based upon the desire to make every object “artful” and beautiful, regardless of its utilitarian or use value. While late nineteenth century  Aestheticism was a desire to combine art and life and life and beauty, “Art for art’s sake” was an aspect of aesthetics, a Kantian derived concept, completely divorced from any specific work of art or from any particular art movement. The independence of aesthetics from art is best illustrated when we picture Kant, an elderly and retiring philosopher professor who denied himself all sensual pleasures in his pursuit of the intellect.  Living in a backwater university town, he never went to museums and did not own any art, and yet he was able to reason his way to the solution of grounding the response to art, which is personal and therefore subjective (based within the viewing subject), in an intellectual framework that is impersonal and objective and, above all, disinterested.

The intellectual framework devised by Kant provided aesthetics as the philosophical grounds for the definition of art in an age when art needed its freedom. Kant set art free from content, subject matter, the client’s wishes, the community’s desires and the needs of religion. The idea of art being given wholly over to aesthetic pleasure and delight was the ultimate freedom of art to exist on its own merits and to be the center of its own world. Art lived and died by its own art rules and justified its own existence in terms of its separate universe. Art was autonomous and free. Kant’s ahistorical or transcendental ideas were conveyed by German expatriates to post-Revolution French intellectuals and artists, who were increasingly alienated from society and adrift without the traditional patrons of Church and State. Suddenly socially “useless” without their historical missions, certain artists found Kant’s concepts very appealing and timely.

The Critique of Judgment (1790) contained the right ideas at the right time: concepts, which were a fortuitous response to an artistic crisis at the beginning of the nineteenth century. What does an artist do? How does an artist make art and why? Why is it that certain objects are universally called “art?” What are the common characteristics of these objects?  What is their “art-ness?”  Kant’s answers became, by the 20th century, to be commonly called “formalism.” Attention to Form in Kantian philosophy, or art for art’s sake, separates art from its traditional role as purveyor of subject matter on the command of a patron. But there is a difference between what Kant wrote and what his followers made of his ideas.  For Kant, formalism is a mode of apprehending and emphasizes direct experience or intuitional awareness, without consideration of practical implications, of a work of art. The cultivation of aesthetic experience as a deliberate value was the work of Kant, who developed a critical criterion for the aptness of a work of art for appreciation, based upon its formal properties, rather than upon practical significance or importance of subject matter. Almost two hundred years later, his aesthetic system was rewritten as formal exploration the intrinsic properties of art itself was the only appropriate mode of art making, but as will be discussed in other posts, this reinterpretation was a misreading of the original concepts in the Critique of Judgment.

Also read: “Kant and Aesthetic Theory” and “Kant and the Critique of Judgment”

and “Kant’s ‘Art-for-Art’s-Sake” and “Kant, the Artist, and Artistic Freedom”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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