Art for Art's Sake

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Art for Art’s Sake


(pure art), term designating a number of aesthetic concepts that affirm artistic creation to be an end in and of itself, independent of politics and social requirements.

G. V. Plekhanov has shown that “the inclination toward ‘art for art’s sake’ originates among artists and individuals who are keenly interested in artistic creation, but who are hopelessly at odds with the social milieu” (Izbr. filosofskie proizvedeniia, vol. 5, 1958, p. 698). Conceptions of art for art’s sake, under differing circumstances, vary in their social and ideological roots and in their objective implications. N. G. Chernyshevskii wrote that art for art’s sake, although “obsolete” in his day, had “made sense at a time when it had to be shown that a poet ought not write magnificent odes, ought not distort reality to gratify various sententious pronouncements, arbitrary and insincere as they are” (Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 2, 1949, p. 271).

Around the middle of the 19th century, a general theory developed embracing ideas advocating art for art’s sake. In many respects this was a reaction to the utilitarianism of Enlightenment philosophy and the mercantilism of bourgeois social relations. Perceiving the entire pattern of bourgeois life as a consistent negation of the aesthetic ideal, artists and art theorists supporting them aspired to re-create the world of beauty in dissociation from and in defiance of reality. This attitude led them on occasion to view art as a self-contained realm of aes-theticism.

In France the doctrine of art for art’s sake became current as early as the 1830’s; it reached the height of its development in the 1850’s among representatives of the Parnassians, headed by T. Gautier. In Great Britain the movement showed its influence during the 1860’s in the work of A. Swinburne, during the 1870’s in the work of W. Pater, and during the 1880’s in the work of O. Wilde. Since the late 19th century conceptions of art for art’s sake have revealed more sharply a tendency toward aestheticism and an emphatic disdain for moral issues. Contemporary ideas of art for art’s sake are usually incorporated into other aesthetic theories, sometimes eclectic ones.

In Russia during the middle of the 19th century the slogan “art for art’s sake” was pitted polemically against the natural school, or “Gogolian trend.” In other words, it was against realism in art. Adversaries of realism included A. V. Druzhinin, S. S. Dudyshkin, P. V. Annenkov, and, in part, the “young” Slavophiles. Art for art’s sake was criticized by the Russian revolutionary democrats, who advanced the principle of art’s civic service, and later by Plekhanov and Marxist literary critics. Marxism, identifying the social roots of different variants of art for art’s sake, exposes the concrete historical implications of the opposition of these variants to both social action and class struggle.

The very nature of socialist realism and similar trends in foreign art dictates that they are organically incompatible with any manifestations of pure art, because pure art takes no interest in the effort to achieve social progress and communism. Marxist-Leninist aesthetics is categorically and implacably opposed to antisocial tendencies in art, be they the products of so-called mass art or of formalism and art for art’s sake.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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