Art Quiz: The Answer is Aestheticism

“Art for art’s sake” or more properly “l’art pour l’art” in French is a somewhat puzzling concept for me. In January 2021, I wrote a post that expressed my personal interpretation of “art for art’s sake“, and was taken to task by a fellow blogger for not really understanding what the movement was all about.

So, today, rather than attempt any explanation of my own, I’ll direct you to The Art Story and share their short summary of “art for art’s sake”.

Taken from the French, the term “l’art pour l’art,” expresses the idea that art has an inherent value independent of its subject-matter, or of any social, political, or ethical significance. By contrast, art should be judged purely on its own terms: according to whether or not it is beautiful, capable of inducing ecstasy or revery in the viewer through its formal qualities (its use of line, color, pattern, and so on). The concept became a rallying cry across nineteenth-century Britain and France, partly as a reaction against the stifling moralism of much academic art and wider society, with the writer Oscar Wilde perhaps its most famous champion. Although the phrase has been little used since the early twentieth century, its legacy lived on in many twentieth-century ideas concerning the autonomy of art, notably in various strains of formalism.

Oscar Wilde — mentioned above — once said that “All art is quite useless”, and I find myself very much in disagreement here, although I can see his point if I look hard enough.

Part of the thinking behind “art for art’s sake” centers around that idea of “usefulness”, with proponents of “art for art’s sake” declaring that useful things simply can’t be considered art.

Consider these words from French poet and literary critic Theophile Gautier:

Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor, weak nature. The most useful place in a house is the lavatory.

My question is why we’re accepting art evaluation from a poet, but that’s just me, and I really don’t understand “art for art’s sake”. To me, personally, it means making art simply for the pleasure of making art, but don’t listen to me, please.

Perhaps we can gain a better understanding if we turn toward the larger concept of aestheticism. Here, again, I’m calling upon the experts.

Aestheticism, late 19th-century European arts movement which centered on the doctrine that art exists for the sake of its beauty alone, and that it need serve no political, didactic, or other purpose.

The movement began in reaction to prevailing utilitarian social philosophies and to what was perceived as the ugliness and philistinism of the industrial age. Its philosophical foundations were laid in the 18th century by Immanuel Kant, who postulated the autonomy of aesthetic standards, setting them apart from considerations of morality, utility, or pleasure. This idea was amplified by J.W. von Goethe, J.L. Tieck, and others in Germany and by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle in England. It was popularized in France by Madame de Staël, Théophile Gautier, and the philosopher Victor Cousin, who coined the phrase l’art pour l’art (“art for art’s sake”) in 1818.

In all honesty, the more I read about “art for art’s sake” and the aesthetic art movement, the less I understand what it was all about. In searching for good illustrations of aestheticism, I found this painting, described as one that “most closely fits the ideals of the Aesthetic movement.”

The Golden Stairs

Artist: Edward Burne-Jones – 1880

Created for the Grosvenor Gallery’s exhibition in 1880, The Golden Stairs is the Burne-Jones painting that most closely fits the ideals of the Aesthetic movement. Although many of the artist’s paintings do include narrative content and moral messages, in The Golden Stairs he eschews this to create a composition entirely based on aesthetics. Each of the women walking down the elegant sweep of the golden stairs is wearing a similarly classicized gown, and each is proportioned to be tall and slim, echoing the shape of the painting itself. The figures’ dresses are subtly different, providing decorative details that keep the viewer’s eye interested but not overwhelmed. Each also carries a different musical instrument as they rhythmically descend stairs that have been described as a visual reference to musical scales. Undoubtedly a nod to Walter Pater’s famous assertion that “all the arts aspire to the condition of music,” the original title of the painting was Music on the Stairs.

Burne-Jones was a key figure who helped to bridge the gap between Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism, creating works that fall under the rubrics of both movements. In this painting, although the faces and clothes of his figures are very similar to some of his earlier works and bear a resemblance to many of the Pre-Raphaelite women painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the composition points more to the values of the Aesthetic movement. Unlike Pre-Raphaelite paintings, The Golden Stairs has no literary source. The subtle and harmonious color palette, as well as the absence of complex narrative or moral content, are also indicative of Aestheticism. Furthermore, the long, thin painting, measuring 9 x 4 feet, recalls the shape of a decorative wall panel rather than a traditional narrative canvas.

I also found Christopher Dresser’s “Teapot” — which made me exclaim at once, “Oh, but a teapot is useful!” Well, yes, ordinarily so. But not this teapot.

It’s definitely interesting, but I guess it serves no real purpose. I doubt that this teapot would be too useful.

For me, I do find the whole idea of art being without purpose quite troubling. I want to find purpose in art, even if that purpose is nothing more than creative expression. I want to enjoy art, which seems to be an underlying concept of art for art’s sake, and in the end, maybe it comes down to a question of “need” VS “want”.  Does this “thing” — whatever it is — fulfill a need? Or is merely something desirable? I can see a distinction there, but I can also see where form, function, and utility can be beautiful, too.

I’ll never really understand or accept the precise art history definitions of “art for art’s sake”, and that’s all right. I’ll just go right on creating whatever art I want, just for the sake of creating it. And I’ll go right on calling it art, whether it is or it isn’t.




  1. How can you say that the teapot has no purpose when you later say art is creative expression ? That yea post is someone’s creative expression and might not appeal to you but doesn’t it have merit and value as being a creatively expressed compilation of metals with angles that feel like a modern house! It also looks like it could boil water but that was not the intention – was it!
    I see the unique tea pot as being a type of item that triggers a big response in folks who love yea and use their own kettle every day! Or this could create nostalgia for those who grew
    Up with old school teapots and see this modern creation with whispers of the old school kettles!
    I also see something of history being preserved – as many younger folks use machines like Keurigs or the drive thru at Starbucks

    So of course this teapot has purpose and I smiled the instant I saw it!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah – and even though it is a good read we don’t have to agree with the author – now do we?
        And I am going to write about art later this month (I am setting up some scheduled posts for April which is a new MO for me) and so I am going to mention your post and the original article because this was super fun to ponder!
        Thanks again for sharing

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, I can’t wait to read your post! Be sure to send me the link. Yes, these philosophical art questions are always fun to ponder. Ultimately nobody is ever going to agree on anything, and that’s what makes it all so fun, don’t you think?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Well
        Guess what? I forgot that i added your link to the flower post for today!
        Just to leave readers with options as my next post doesn’t go out until Easter

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Lovely blooms! Inspiring, too. Florals are my current drawing subject — all those garden catalogs we’ve received, you know. I love the quotes you shared…and thank you so much for sharing Artistcoveries!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Hi! Thanks for coming over – I am not sure if my
        Ping worked so glad I left the link

        And best wishes with your Floral
        Drawings /
        It sounds like a great subject to draw …. and I have not seen any catalogues in a while but I imagine they have a huge variety –
        You can draw many moods of flowers

        Liked by 1 person

      6. My floral drawings — with oil pastel — have been disastrous. But seeing all the beautiful blooms and blossoms is inspiring. We have tulips blooming in our yard now. I want to step outside (if it warms up today) and make a quick sketch.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Well about ten to 12 years ago I was doing flowers with pastels and guess what? They came out kind of not so good too! Hahaha
        But I had fun using the pastels – pressing hard and blending them – it was a nice medium for me at that time

        Liked by 1 person

      8. I’ve done landscapes with oil pastels, but florals…??? Yikes. I really don’t know how to use them properly, I guess. I just end up making quite a mess.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. Well they are a unique medium that is for sure. I also noticed that not all pop pastels are created equal – some have a bit more wax (or whatever it is) and so I do remember trying a few different brands.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. And forgot to add trust I loved this post so much and enjoyed the way you walked us through art for the sake of art and the examples!!
    Done and good read on this chilly Sunday afternoon

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As you allude to here the act of artistic composition is a process that results in something of aesthetic value. So in that senses act of producing an artistic composition has useful value by helping us think irrespective of what end result is actually produced.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think art and creativity are very useful. I think it’s easiest to understand “aestheticism” when we look at it from the historical point of view, but even then I don’t really understand it! Thanks for the comment.


  4. Thank you for this post because it also caused me to dig into the origins of the philosophy. I picked up Kant’s writing about aesthetics and it is quite fascinating, though difficult to tease apart. His version was not surprisingly watered down and skewed a bit by the artistic movement. He says that aesthetics deals with how we react to something when we don’t think about it using our preconceived ideas, or try to take it apart with rational arguments etc. He seems to be describing the pure emotional and intuitive experience we have with the world which cannot be put into words. As he looks for beauty he describes finding it everywhere in nature, where there is an underlaying spirit at work, but not finding it as often in art. A piece of art is only beautiful for him if it also displays some sort of inner spirit of its own, and isn’t too forced or obvious.
    I think it is a fascinating way to think about all forms of art and focusing on the sensations we get from experiencing them before we start trying to over-analyze with words.
    Again, thanks for inspiring me to look into this!

    Liked by 1 person

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