The term is credited to French poet and dramatist Théophile Gautier, born in 1811. He was the first to use it as a slogan, appearing in the preface to his book Mademoiselle de Maupin, published in 1835. It was later used by authors like Edgar Allan Poe (author of ‘The Raven’ and numerous haunting short stories) and Benjamin Constant (a political thinker and writer). Poe used it when speaking about poetry. He wrote the following in “The Poetic Principle,” published in 1850:
[…] the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.
He changes the phrase to speak specifically about poetry rather than the broad term of “art.” He notes that writing a poem for no other reason than to write a poem is the noblest way that poetry can be written. While many writers shared this opinion, others disagreed.
To this day, there is contention within the art world, both in regard to literary and visual arts, what this principle of aestheticism should mean for creation. For some, creating for art’s sake is enough and what any artist or writer should strive for. For others, the idea that creating art devoid of culture or history is a clear impossibility. One cannot, in the minds of some scholars, divorce themselves from their external influences.
Explore Art for Art’s Sake
“Art for Art’s Sake” Definition
The phrase comes from the French “l’art pour l’art.” It refers to a philosophy of art that values the intrinsic beauty of creation and the art in its own right.
“Art for art’s sake” is used within a wide range of disciplines. It can be found, interestingly, in some commercial settings.
Those who follow this philosophy believe that the only “true” or “real” art is that which is without intention, besides the creative motivation of the artist. This means that art and literature should be without cultural and political influence as well as without any kind of utilitarian function.
The term is commonly associated with the Aestheticism movement. In visual arts, the concept is easier to understand than in literature. For example, to fulfill the philosophy, a ceramicist would make sculptures inspired by their inner love for art rather than cups, bowls, or any other utilitarian item.
The Aesthetic Movement adopted the phrase because the artists and writers of the aesthetic movement rejected the practical purposes of their work. For example, creating art or writing that had a social agenda or was tried to convey didactic information. Instead, these creators believed in the beauty and pleasure of art/writing over everything else. They also rejected nature as a source of inspiration, unlike many other literary and artistic movements.
“Art for Art’s Sake” Examples
A Leave-Taking by Algernon Charles Swinburne
In this poem, the poet writes about a lady’s passivity towards the narrator. The man in this “relationship” tried to please the lady the best he could be. However, she remains cold and continues to reject his love. Here is the first stanza:
Let us go hence, my songs; she will not hear.
Let us go hence together without fear;
Keep silence now, for singing-time is over,
And over all old things and all things dear.
She loves not you nor me as all we love her.
Yea, though we sang as angels in her ear,
She would not hear.
This poem deals with love, lust, and pure human emotions like sorrow. These are all features that readers can find in other poems that are inspired by the phrase “art for art’s sake.”
Explore more of Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poetry.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is the best-known literary example of aestheticism. It is also Wilde’s only novel (although his poetry also demonstrates the attributes of aestheticism and art for art’s sake). The book follows Dorian Gray, Lord Henry, and Basil Hallward. The former, Dorian, stops aging or showing signs of stress, despite the darker aspects of his personality.
Throughout the novel, the characters muse on the value of beauty in comparison to everything else. Dorian wishes that his portrait would age instead of him so that he might remain beautiful for as long as possible. Here is a quote from the book:
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are cultivated. For these, there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.
When the novel was republished in 1891, Wilde included a preface that defended the novel and his rights to create it. Today, that preface is considered an important literary work in its own right.
‘Requiescat’ describes the sorrow felt over the passing and burial of a young woman. The speaker begins the poem by asking the listener/s to be quiet and pay respect to the woman lying in the earth beneath them. She might be disturbed by heavy footfalls or loud voices. She was as perfect and pale as a lily, and this was only increased as she grew into a woman. Here are a few lines:
Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.
Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.
In the last lines of ‘Requiescat,’ the speaker concedes that she cannot, in fact, hear anything going on above the earth. She has been buried, and with her, his entire life.
Explore Oscar Wilde’s poetry.
It refers to a philosophy of art that only that which is created with pure intentions (an interest in creating the art and nothing else) is the real art.
An interest in beauty above all other artistic or literary features, the use of symbols, and a rejection of didactic or moral writing.
It is a literary movement that values beauty over all other artistic elements. It was a reaction to the Victorian period.
The doctrine stated that art exists in order to convey beauty and experience alone rather than promote an allegorical message or further a cause.
Related Literary Terms
- Aestheticism: a literary and artistic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that focused on the importance of beauty.
- Beat Generation: a literary movement that began after the Second World War and is known for its liberal attitudes towards life.
- Georgian Poetry: a poetic movement in England that lasted from 1910 to 1936 during the reign of George V.
- Imagism: a literary movement of the early 20th century. The proponents were interested in the use of precise imagery and clear language.
- Synesthesia: refers to a technique authors use to blur human senses in their imagery.
- Read: The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde
- Listen: Summary of The Picture of Dorian Gray
- Watch: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900