Art for Art's Sake & Literary Life: How Politics and Markets Helped Shape the Ideology & Culture of Aestheticism, 1790-1990

By Gene H. Bell-Villada | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I

The Enlightenment Origins and the Theory of the Mental Faculties

The Enlightenment origins? Some readers might balk at the connection of the Enlightenment with Art for Art's Sake. After all, we associate most of the great eighteenth-century thinkers with their commitment to the use of reason and experience, along with their belief in the ultimate political betterment of humankind. Among the era's textual monuments is the French Encyclopédie, that weighty compendium of the latest advances in science and thought. Neither reason nor science nor human progress, however, has served as a call to arms for literary aestheticists, many of whom have been, if not antirationalist, then certainly indifferent to the claims of reason. In addition, their purported antididacticism would seemingly negate the Enlightenment ideal of liberation through knowledge. Either that or they would characterize what we learn from poetry as something not to be found even in the best works of reference.

Yet, at the same time, the Enlightenment was the critical project aimed at freeing humanity from received dogmas and tradition. In concrete political terms this often meant opposition to Church control over life and learning -- in a word, anticlericalism, even antireligiosity. Gibbon unabashedly blames the Fall of Rome on a Christian faith that had "insinuated" itself into the Roman Empire. And today every student of European history knows of Voltaire's harsh judgment on the Church: "Ecraser l'infame." Indeed, for the first time since antiquity, respectable men of letters during the Enlightenment made no secret of being deists or atheists, as was Hume. The spirit of questioning hence touched on the very ideological supports of the reigning political order. Among the major historical consequences of this long-term secularizing drive, of course, were the American and French Revolutions, both of which separated Church administration from state power. In this regard, then, aestheticism owes a profound debt to the Enlightenment for having liberated all human practices --

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