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

CONCLUSION
The Enduring Dilemma, the Academy, the Media

"Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don't try it. You should leave that to people who haven't been to a University." -- Algernon Moncrieff in Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, act 1

Art for Art's Sake, as shown in the course of this narrative, is not simply a single concept of the sort given notoriety by Wilde's wit. It is, rather, a set of ideas, an intellectual and artistic horizon that, over its two-hundred-year history, has constantly shifted its arguments and position, depending both on the larger circumstances in which its adherents happen to be situated and on the specific predispositions of the respective authors. Kant and Schiller had with their aesthetic theories something very different in mind from what Gautier or Poe or the Latin American modernistas did with the doctrine, but then Gautier and cohorts were verbal-visual melodists, not abstract, grand-scale thinkers. The Euro-American Modernists for their part picked up on the ideas and practices of l'art pour l'art at the same time that they hoped to link literature once again with basic truths and even values; they in turn could not have foreseen the ways in which their works would be construed by the bewildering varieties of aesthetic separatism that became the standard fashion in university life after 1945.

For better or for worse, the ideology of Art for Art's Sake is most probably here to stay in some form or other. After all, many a doctrine has a way of surviving its original raisons d'être and becoming an available legacy thereafter. A century ago it was widely believed that, with the spectacular advance of natural science, religion was all but finished; yet religious thinking and feeling have repeatedly reemerged as major contenders in modern life, scientific triumphs notwithstanding. Even so repugnant a worldview as fascism -- supposedly discredited with the defeat of the Axis powers -- has man

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