Art for art’s sake was born in the nineteenth century and was primarily related to the Aesthetic and Decadent movements in England and France, with Walter Pater and his well-known disciple Oscar Wilde as its major proponents. In brief, the phrase asserts that the value of art is ultimately found in itself, in the creation of itself for its own sake. This is in stark contrast to what many have professed is the true purpose of art—to instruct the spectator and/or to impart a moral lesson. Art for art’s sake as a school of thought reacted against the severity of Victorian morality and propriety in the public space. It even dispensed with the philosophical idealism and grandeur of love that was the hallmark of much Romantic contemplation and poetry. Art for art’s sake subverted the proposed moral or didactic objective of art by creating art that was artificial in subject matter as well as medium. Instead of extolling the beauty of love and desire, and of even Nature herself, art for art’s sake (through aestheticism and decadence) revered the masks we wear, pleasured itself at the sight of the painted faces of prostitutes, worshiped the beauty of decay, and desired the blissful oblivion of death.
With this in mind, the questions here are those that the slogan itself raised well over a hundred years ago. Does art have a purpose beyond itself? Does art with an objective mar the beauty of the piece or even rob it of that beauty? If that beauty is separated from the artwork, is it still art? Is the purpose of art to be merely beautiful? Aesthetes and decadents such as myself would surely nod in assent to this question. Does that “beauty” have value enough in itself to validate the creative process and its productions? Or should art only instruct or yield a moral? Can art do both—be itself (beautiful) and convey a message? Should it? Should art serve government, even corporate, ideology and be used to spread propaganda? Should art serve religions as a mode of instilling their rigid dogma into the hearts and minds of their believers?
The aesthetes and decadents desired art that was not utilitarian. If art has a purpose, a meaning beyond itself, beyond its own existence in the world, then that objective and meaning has a value seemingly greater than the art itself and supersedes it, degrading its very existence as art. The irony of the art and writing of the Aesthetic and Decadent movements is that much of it is moral, has a clear purpose, and is only seemingly veiled by the mediums themselves. The brilliance and beauty of a decadent poem or a narrative of aesthetic fiction is in the language itself. So a question seems to assert itself: Is the medium that which is beautiful, or the work of art that it creates? Or are they both beautiful?
I would not call The Picture of Dorian Gray a beautiful book, but rather the language that constitutes it beautiful. But is the language itself all that constitutes the book? What makes up the matter of the book? Yet I can easily say that Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is a beautiful poem. Why? The answer seems to be that when speaking of a poem the language itself is directly perceived as what comprises the poem, inclusive of its rhythm and the images it invokes. But for fiction so much more seems to go into the work than just the language—the development of a plot with all its twists and turns, the setting and atmosphere, the exploration and building of characters through dialogue and action. Poetry, on the other hand, seems to be something pared down, more readily available to be deemed “beautiful.” It seems that fiction rather than poetry is quite often the genre that leads to instruction in moral belief and behavior. But doesn’t poetry do this as well? This is most notably true for the poetry written before the Romantics but continues through them to the present.
Is a work of fiction ever just a story without meaning? Do novels exist that do not, at some point, and on some level, expose the reader to a moment of epiphany and revelation? Is a poem ever just a poem? Does it just exist unto itself without a deeper purpose? Even in consciously creating art for its own sake, that art has a purpose—just to be, to exist in the world for itself. All art, then, has an intention, even if it is “just to be.”
In all honesty, artists and writers can and do create art that has a moral, a deeper purpose, whether it seeks to subvert or to buttress or neither. This is the artist and the art’s right and privilege. The key is not to permit the moral or objective of the work to become overtly preachy, and thus eclipse the value and beauty of the work itself as a whole, and as a creation of a profound heart and mind.