Art-for-Art’s-Sake in Context

In the Salon of 1846,  the poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire argued that average people (in modern clothes) were as heroic as any Roman heroes of ancient times. In the waning days of the July Monarchy, the Greco-Roman legends and myths represented in French Academic art  were no longer relevant to a society which was rapidly modernizing. Art, Baudelaire insisted, should be about “us” and “our” heroism and “our” time. Within the world of Academic art, his idea of conceiving of the contemporary period as being special or even worthy of depiction was controversial and heretical. The emotional investment that the Academy and its artists had in the classical tradition has to be understood, not as a stubborn preference for a particular style, but a reaction to the rapid and unstoppable social and economic changes. These alterations to the cultural fabric were unstoppable, beyond anyone’s control. Even worse, the consequences of the constant upheavals could not be predicted.  It is also important to realized the stress the French people had been under since the French Revolution, as the political scene veered wildly from King to Emperor to revolution to war and rebellions. Periodically the nation would be caught up in a never-ending civil war which was a struggle between the lower and middle classes for political power. Only one class could rule, according to the bourgeois mindset, and the upstart class must be crushed. When seen in the context of the desperate rear guard struggle against cultural change, the intensity of the artistic quarrels of the Nineteenth century is easier to comprehend.

Classical art and traditional Academic teachings, whether philosophical or technical, were a bulwark of reassurance, as if the “timeless” would protect the nation from all that was “modern.”  The “modern” and “modernité” were, quite simply, dangerous to the status quo and to the stability that was so hard to come by and so hard to maintain.  The Second Empire devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to controlling thought.  Previous freedoms were revoked. The press was strangled and killed and the publications that were left were heavily censored.  Art was strictly controlled by the government. Those who dedicated themselves to economic pursuits were celebrated and ennobled by the state, but those who rejected the bourgeois lifestyle were suspect.  It is out of these suspect people, poets, writers, visual artists, déclasse members of la bohème, that the new concept of art-for-art’s-sake developed. This new approach to art and how and why art should be made differed from the Romantic justification for art in that, with the Naturalist artists, their stance was impersonal rather than personal, and objective rather than subjective.  A reflection of the demand for individualism, the Romantic artist based everything on personal vision and personal expression.  But the Naturalist perspective comes, not from selfhood, but from science.

The Naturalist artist had a new role, that of an observer who was disinterested and detached.  In some ways, this role sounds similar to that of the Realist artist—to depict life as it really was. However, there is an important difference both in intent and in effect: the Realist artist was “interested.”  In the art of Gustave Courbet, for example, the purpose of recording ordinary life was to make a political point, giving  the artist a social purpose and the art a social role.  Courbet and his art were intended to work within the stystem, reforming it from the inside.  This new social utility of art and the resulting political engagement was a necessary wedge between the old Romantic “art-for-art’s-sake” and the new concept of “art-for-art’s-sake.” Science and technology became the basis for knowledge, and Baudelaire’s ideas were in tune with an intensified historical self-consciousness and self-examination that can be found in other disciplines of the time, especially history, which was beginning to take its modern form.  After Courbet, it became necessary to free art from its role as political commentator and social savior.  Art making had to be a detached exercise, and, after Courbet, content should not count, subject matter could not be significant.  At this stage, the object of artistic contemplation could not be totally neutralized but it could be downplayed.  The artists and writers who needed to distance themselves from the old-fashioned Realists deliberately selected subject which were both modern and commonplace.

By commonplace, they meant ordinary as opposed to ancient heroics, but another point needs to be made.  These members of la bohéme were bound to the middle class, depending, like Courbet and Manet, upon private family wealth to fund their artistic rebellion against the establishment.  Men like that were snobs with a profound distaste for the middle classes who were conformist and ordinary, and it is important to understand the importance of their hostility towards that which they examined.  While taking a disinterested stance, the artists exposed the banality of modern life in all its excruciating detail. Mere depiction condemned, simple description challenged, hence the crushing reaction of the forces of law and order leveled against these vulgarians. The approach of depicting modern life without trying to exoticize it, symbolize it, moralize it, or idealize it was the basis of  the current Naturalist literature of Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert.  Flaubert insisted that it would be a mistake to conflate Realism with Naturalism.

Everyone thinks I am in love with reality, whereas i actually detest it.  It was in hatred of realism that I undertood this book (Madame Bovary). But I equally despise the false brand of idealism which is such a hollow mockery in the present age…I wrote Madame Bovary to annoy Champfleury, I wanted to show that bourgeois dreariness and mediocre sentiments could sustain beautiful language.

What is important about Flaubert’s statement is, first, his “hatred” for “reality,” i. e. bourgeois life; and second,  is his stress on language.  Flaubert looked at  the sordid word of the unsalvagable middle class and turns that world into a linguistic exercise.  The writer pointed out that is is important to “write the mediocre well,” that is, the content is irrelevant and the form becomes paramount.  The trick is to transcend reality with the transformative power of language.  But this language had to be a neutralized speech: rhetoric had to be stripped away, poetry had to be eliminated. This new way of writing was one of observation composed of detailed description for no particular purpose other than the sheer act of writing.  Writing was for the sake of writing.  From the perspective of Naturalism, Flaubert’s visual counterpart was Edouard Manet. Manet may or may not have been Baudelaire’s “painter of modern life,” but he was engaged in the same enterprise as the writer—that of using the language of the discipline against the discipline in order to change, not literature or art, but to change its language.  If the new task of the artist, inherited from the older Realists, was to avoid the “poncif,” then the next step would be to use the scenes of modern life as a vehicle for a modern language.  It would be incorrect to argue that Manet’s content was totally neutral, nor were the scenes of modern life he selected arbitrary.  True, his paintings were charged with social meaning but, in their own time, the truly sensational aspect of his work was not his content but the way he painted: his language.

In The Judgment of Paris (2006), Ross King pointed out that the public cared little for the nudity or prostitution or Manet’s Dejeunner sur l’herbe or Olympia and that the critics were more concerned with his sins against painting techniques.  Emile Zola was one of the writers who urged the public to look away from Manet’s content to his style of painting but we should not read his defense anachronistically as a justification for formalism or a formal reading of a painting.  The importance of Manet, in his own time, is how he took the language of art and renewed it, freeing, painting itself from it traditional role in representation.  As Pierre Bourdieu in The Rule of Art (1992) expressed it,

This is the complexity of the artistic revolution: under pain of excluding oneself from the game, one cannot revolutionize a field without mobilizing or invoking the experiences of the history of the field and the great heretics—baudelaire, Flaubert, and Manet—inscribe themselves explicitly in this history of the field, mastering its specific capital much more completely than their contemporaries, so that revolutions take the form of return to sources, to purity of origins.

“Art-for-art’s-sake” under naturalism was an attempt to remake literature so that writing would be simply writing: word-making; and to remake art so that painting would be simply painting: mark making. Simple, but profoundly disruptive to a society constantly on the brink of disintegration. During the Second Empire, art should be mobilized to the purposes of the State and anyone who was suspected of not doing the proper patriotic duty would suffer the fate of an outsider. Like it or not, art-for-art’s-sake was political stance and a social position.

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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