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 6
The Diffusion of the Doctrine III: Literary Modernism and After

Is literary Modernism a chapter in the history of Art for Art's Sake? On one level, Modernism is indeed the expansion of aestheticist doctrine from lyric poetry to almost all artistic media. On the other hand, an honest answer to the question must be a cautious "Yes, but. . . ." Both the affirmative and the reservation require extensive comment, for the intellectual relationship between the literary vanguard and the aestheticist ethos is unstable and complex. Many Modernist authors believed, after all, that their innovative techniques served to convey larger, less tangible truths. To cite Picasso's famous aphorism, "Art is not the truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth."1

T. S. Eliot is an exemplary case in the way that his stance as a critic could waver back and forth, sometimes within the same volume. In his introduction to the first edition ( 1920) of The Sacred Wood, Eliot chides Matthew Arnold for his social commitments, for yielding to "the temptation . . . to put literature into the corner until he cleaned up the whole country first."2 This implicitly aestheticist line is put into bold relief in Eliot preface to the second edition ( 1928), in which he asserts that poetry must be considered "primarily as poetry and not [as] another thing."

By this time, however, Eliot had been baptized and confirmed in the Church of England, and his seemingly purist conception of lyric is qualified by his new interest in "the relation of poetry to the spiritual and social life of its time and of other times." Poetry, he further notes, "certainly has something to do with morals, and with religion, and even with politics perhaps, though we cannot say what."3 Later, in "Religion and Literature" ( 1935), Eliot declares with the full zeal of a convert that literary criticism should have "a definite ethical and theological standpoint. . . . In ages like our own . . . it is the more necessary for Christian readers to scrutinize their reading . . . with ex

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